When I was in secondary school, I was elected as form representative to the school council – not as an early recognition of my outstanding leadership qualities, but because no-one else wanted to do it. The first thing my form asked me to raise was the strictness of our form tutor. ‘Tell them how mean he is!’ I was urged. ‘He won’t let us stay in at break!’
‘We’re not allowed to mention anything about specific members of staff. It’s in the rules.’
‘Well what’s the bloody point of it then? You can’t do anything!’
They never asked me to raise anything else.
This first experience of constituent dissatisfaction has stayed with me as an example of how easily rules governing councils, bodies, and boards can lead to anger, disconnection, and apathy among those they’re elected to serve. There may well be very good reasons for the rules, but if these – reasons as well as rules – aren’t clearly communicated to those members the body should be serving, it risks being seen as a self-serving, toothless bureaucracy.
This is very much in my mind as I prepare to take up a role as Director on the SLA Board. The question of how to ensure that power in an association stayed with the members rather than the council was raised at the CILIP hustings, and I’d like to share my thoughts on the role of an elected representative.
I see the board of a professional association as being of the members, for the members. They should be leaders, certainly, but mainly insofar as they are prepared to step forward and take the hard role of using their judgement and expertise to be a conduit and balance.
A conduit for the needs of the individual members: I believe every board member should be willing and open to listen to any member of the association, and have the respect and professional courtesy to give their opinions due consideration, even if they conflict with the representative’s own views.
A conduit for the needs of groups of members: whether these be official groups within the association, or ad hoc/unofficial groups. Representatives should endeavour to give all groups the same weight of consideration, and discern where the needs if several groups align.
A conduit for the needs of the association as a whole: the larger picture that many individual members may never need to consider. Is what’s best for individual members now best for the association as a whole, and in the long term? In a member organisation, it might be easy to say that the two should be the same, but they rarely are. To take a very trite example: to cut member dues in half would be a definite benefit for individual members now: they’d save money! Great! But it wouldn’t be good for the long-term, sustainable future of the association, or for members in the long-term, as the association becomes crippled through lack of funds, and unable to benefit members.
A conduit for the needs of the profession: the representative should always remember that the association is not the profession, and that the needs of the two may not coincide. The association is in itself a representative, of the profession as a whole, and its needs and those of its members should be considered as such. The representative needs to use their professional awareness and judgement to make sure these wider issues are not forgotten.
A conduit for the needs of society: above all, the representative needs to keep in mind the ultimate goal of all we do as a profession: to serve and improve society. They should be champions of this oft-unspoken ‘why’ that should append to all our motivations. We’re pretty good as a profession at articulating the why of what we do up to a certain point: ‘I learn x so I can better serve my users, so they can do their jobs better’. What often stays unspoken is the step beyond this: ‘I learn x so I can better serve my users, so they can do their jobs better, to better serve society.’
I think one of the reasons we so often forget to explicitly say this is that we all assume that we know it; it becomes taken for granted. ‘We’re librarians, information professionals – of course we work for the good of society!’ But sometimes you need to say it, as a reminder – and as a check. Does it work as the final context and motivation of your actions? Is what you’re doing really for the good of society?
Elected representatives need to always consider that question for themselves, and to be that voice of conscience for others. They need to be the ones who make sure they have the space and perspective necessary to step back and ask the question, and the guts to listen to and act on the answer.
Of course, there are many differing views on what is of benefit to society, and I’m not ever expecting people to find the one true answer. But I do believe that you must take the time to ask yourself the question, to listen to others’ opinions, and to make sure you sincerely believe that what you’re doing is right.
Balancing all of these factors is not at all an easy thing to do! And I haven’t even allowed for your own personal opinions – which, contradictorily, are probably why you were elected in the first place, but which will now often become subordinate to the views of those various constituencies you represent.
Because it’s not easy, and everyone gets it wrong sometimes, we have councils and boards and committees, not dictators. A peer group for discussion and support is vital – as is the humility to accept that you make mistakes, and the resilience to move past them. It’s also why most roles have fixed-terms: not only to ensure a rotation of talents and opinions, but to prevent burnout among those who serve.
The final role of a representative? To remember that they should be a conduit in both directions. They don’t just represent the members to the board, but the board among the members. They should communicate (as far as possible or appropriate) the decision-making process, as well as the decisions made. They should leave members in no doubt that the board remains rooted in the good of the members, the association, the profession, and society. They should advocate for the body within the profession, and for the profession within society. They are chosen so that they can use their voice to speak for many. Silence is not an option.
Will I achieve all of this in my role as Director? Can anyone reasonably hope to achieve all this? I don’t know, but I’m proud to have it to aim for.