Board of Trustees, Governance

THE ONGOING CONFLICTS OF INTEREST AT THE CENTRE OF THE BRITISH PSYCHOLOGICAL SOCIETY – AN OPEN LETTER 

David Pilgrim has sent this letter to the President, the SMT, the editor of The Psychologist and to various journalists who have an interest in what is going on in the BPS. He has also sent it to the Charity Commission.

To whom it may concern

The incipient reform (in January 2022) of the Board of Trustees (BoT) of the British Psychological Society (BPS), to now include three properly independent members, is welcomed. It is a reactive signal that all is not well with the structure at the centre of a putative learned body and registered charity. 

Sadly it does not go far enough, if the BPS is to regain and retain public trust and that of its members. Many have been trying, and failing, to make this point about the needed radical root and branch reform of the governance of the Society in recent times. They have been ignored or dismissed as malcontents.  A large fraud now subject to sentencing in the Crown Court, and the disappearance of three Presidents (one expelled and two resigned over a two month period in 2021) are symptomatic of the most recent crisis in a long troubled organisation.

The culture of misgovernance, which has enabled both financial wrongdoing and policy capture, has been afforded by a blatant structural problem, dating back to the Royal Charter of 1965. At that time a BoT was required, but its precise membership not defined a priori. In 1987 a second bite of the cherry was offered but not taken, when the Royal Charter was revised. This has meant that for over fifty years the Society has been run by a BoT with no public involvement and where conflicts of interest have been inherent: we have had faux-Trustees not the real thing. To date the BoT has been constituted wholly from within the BPS, with external scrutiny being missing completely.

Any good charity knows that they should appoint Trustees, who are fully independent of the workings of the organisation (and the people involved as employees or volunteers). A Trustee should be defined by their ability to walk away from the role, with no personal disadvantage (of money, status, personal goals or cognitive/political interests). Given that under current arrangements all of the Trustees have conflicts of interest, then this criterion of independence has failed continually. The incumbents, as appointees from Boards and other sub-systems, should be accountable to Trustees not be Trustees themselves. The Presidential triumvirate is an important democratic counter-balance, but note that even this is from the membership not the general public.

Until the BoT is reformed fully in line with this point of best practice about Trustee independence, recommended by the Charity Commission, then the cultural legacy of poor governance and its adverse consequences are likely to persist. This and related points will be discussed at length in a book soon to appear, which I am editing: The Crisis of British Psychology: A Case Study in Organisational Dysfunction (Phoenix Press). 

Sincerely

Dr David Pilgrim 

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