Board of Trustees, Governance

Is the BPS Board of ‘Trustees’ doomed to fail?

David Pilgrim posts….

Many of the postings (see, for example, here and here) on this blog have addressed the governance failings of the Board of ‘Trustees’. The latter is placed in quotation marks because, as we have argued previously, they do not offer independent scrutiny or oversight. The Senior Management Team (SMT) is salaried, and the other members are drawn from sub-systems of the Society with their particular interests. The very point of Trustees in relation to charities is that they should be impartial and independent. This is a circle that cannot be squared at present in the BPS. 

How has the Society got itself into this fix? It is partly a lack of insight from the current incumbents on the Board. All representations from us about this problem, as with other serious matters, have fallen on deaf ears. But this cultural norm of defensiveness and denial is not the whole explanation. If we go on to the BPS website, and we pull up the relevant documents related to the Royal Charter and Statutes and the Rules of the Society, then the answer is there in plain sight.

The Royal Charter only requires that there should be a Board of Trustees. This is a broad-brush requirement and it prescribes no operationalised detail. When we then go to the Rules, there is precious little on the Board – more is said about the Council of Representatives (now the Senate). However, what is said in the Statutes document does tells us who (by role) will constitute the Board (the Presidential triumvirate, chairs of the BPS sub-systems or other appointed delegates along with the Honorary Treasurer and Honorary General Secretary). Although in practice today the SMT members join the Board meetings, they are not mentioned in either the Statutes or the Rules: see below on this current silence in BPS documentation. Given the power and responsibility of the SMT, an observer may consider this curious, to say the least.

So there we have it. All the members of the Board are either salaried or appointed from the sub-systems of the Society. The Presidential triumvirate is elected by the membership. At the time of writing both the President and Deputy President have recently resigned and for reasons we cannot discover, the President Elect is not being permitted to chair the Board in their absence. This failure to appoint the President Elect as the acting Chair of the Board is explicitly contrary to the Statute 20 of the Society. For now the Board has no elected leadership, which simply aggravates the preexisting sham of its independence.  

Note that financial, career or reputational interests are embedded in all of these roles on the Board.  There are no independent people from outside the Society, especially ones that might have relevant skills in relation to finance or organisational efficiency and probity. This whole scenario is out of sync with both the spirit and detail of charity law. To a new pair of eyes, used to charity functioning, this beggars belief.

Silence about the Senior Management Team

The above describes, in large part, the arrangements that have emerged in the Society since the Royal Charter was granted in 1987. This created the inevitable conditions for conflicts of interest and a conservative culture of self-protection. Reflective critical oversight would destabilise that culture. It has been largely absent, because independence on the Board has also been absent. With the same names being recycled in the sub-systems (including as well the honorary roles of Treasurer and General Secretary), often for years on end, the description of an oligarchy is warranted. However, that problem was then joined by another.

Once the BPS was to be managed, not merely administered, the pre-existing tendency of weak governance was then amplified. I have discussed this point about the implications for organisations of the New Public Management Model in my previous posting and will not repeat the critical points again. What is relevant here is the contrast between the documents concerning the Rules, the Royal Charter and the Statutes of the BPS, and those which are available to us about the SMT. The BPS website lists who the people on the SMT are, as well as their titles. However, I cannot find any document that describes specifically how that salaried team relates functionally to other parts of the Society, or describes its powers in comparison to the sub-systems and the general membership. 

This dual problem of the old oligarchy interacting with the new SMT has implications for democracy. The frustrations we have encountered, when trying to fathom what is going on in the closed world of the Board of ‘Trustees’, are now added to by the lack of transparency available to members about the workings of the SMT and its self-defining power and control over processes in the Society. In a well-run charity, information about these matters should be available to all concerned, in a clear and transparent manner. 

Members and the public should know how the performance of managers would be evaluated and by whom. Board meetings would be about the SMT reporting to and being accountable to Trustees in a spirit of respectful critical scrutiny from the latter. They would not be ‘briefing’ meetings for the former. When the SMT was first set up in the BPS, for a while it did not even send in written reports to the Board; apparently that has now changed. As far as the Board is concerned, we still cannot work out (wagging-wise), which is the tail and which is the dog. 

Were the BPS to have publicly available and credible delegation and oversight frameworks, these would be codified and documented in a similar fashion to those I cite above about the Rules and the Statutes. I may have failed to spot these functional descriptions of the SMT and their accountability on the BPS website. Apologies to all readers if they are there and I have missed them. If this is the case, then maybe someone on the Board of ‘Trustees’ could get in touch with us with the relevant correction. If they are not there, then it is a matter of urgency for them to be produced and disclosed to members of the Society.

Conclusion

The culture of poor governance, which all of the postings on this blog have sought to illuminate, is traceable in part to a structural problem about the Society’s tradition of forming a Board of ‘Trustees’ narrowly from within its own ranks. The formally codified character of the Board of ‘Trustees’, in the documents I cited at the outset, puts this body on tramlines, with conflicts of interest and poor oversight being the inevitable outcome, as we now see. 

This means that when and if the BPS is reformed as a charity, in order to ensure the regulatory compliance currently missing, then this present statute describing the Board, which makes it a hostage to fortune, needs be scrapped. It should be replaced by one that prescribes a properly independent body and then current critics can remove the quotation marks from ‘Trustees’. There are plenty of well-run charities that are role models, and the Charity Commission itself will surely advise on this matter.

The role and powers of the SMT should be spelled out in cogent and trustworthy frameworks of delegation and oversight. The absence of these at present is a serious problem and it simply permits members of the SMT to exercise unchecked power in relation to a range of matters. These include centralized financial control, the interpretation of policy documents, media policy emphases, interference with academic activity and the control of information internally and in relation to those outside of the Board (including members of the Society, the press and the general public). These proposals would not fix all of the problems of organisational dysfunction in the BPS but they would be a very good start.

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