"The Psychologist", Board of Trustees, Expulsion of President-Elect, Governance

The legitimation crisis and a membership denied answers

David Pilgrim posts….

Today, the concept of a ‘legitimation crisis’ can be applied clearly to the BPS. Although explored at length in a book with that title by Habermas (1974), many other social and political scientists have returned to the theme. This is about leadership regimes, which may notionally still retain power, but their strained credibility reflects an imminent or current breakdown in their actual authority. The cabal currently at the centre of the BPS is still in power but its credibility is in rapid decline. It lacks what Eric Fromm, in his book The Sane Society, called ‘rational authority’ and, instead, exercises power on its own terms in order to ward off the stream of criticism warranted. For Fromm this would be an expression of ‘irrational authority’.

On this blog we have been reporting the character and history of this crisis in recent months and each entry, such as this one, is a new take on an unprecedented state of affairs for the Society. The occasional flurry of criticism of rogue celebrity researchers, such as Cyril Burt (Joynson, 1988) or Hans Eysenck (Marks, 2018), barely dented the reputation of the BPS. Similarly, the spat between the Maudsley methodological behaviourists and their scorned psychodynamic colleagues from north of the Thames, in a struggle to control the Medical Section and its journal, led to a temporary closure of its business in 1958 (Pilgrim and Treacher, 1991). These small eruptions of doubt, that all was well in the BPS, pale into insignificance today. We have never seen anything like this, either in living memory or in the literature on the history of British psychology. Those past examples, looked at in the current context, are like comparing a bar room brawl with a military coup. 

In meetings of the Board of Trustees today all of the Presidential triumvirate have gone, so it contains nobody elected from the general membership. Unelected Senior Management Team members now outnumber Trustees from the sub-systems. This trend is now amplified by the Board preventing members electing a replacement for the radically reforming President Elect, after expulsion from the Society, a cue for the next main point.

The public disparagement of Nigel MacLennan

The video released, vilifying the President Elect in advance of his appeal being submitted and heard, is a complete outrage. It offends our normal understanding of natural justice and leaves the Board of Trustees, who planned its production and dissemination on YouTube, open to the charge of unethical and possibly illegal activity. Are the Trustees so determined to crush this man’s reputation that they will simply ‘do anything that it takes’? 

It is officially the position of the BPS (according to its own website for all to read) not to investigate individual members. However, does that claim fail to apply only when it is politically expedient for the interests of the incumbent leadership? Are the members seriously expected to believe that this has been anything but a ‘stitch up’ from start to finish? Was the investigation panel hand-picked by the Board of Trustees or not? How many on that panel were truly independent and without their own vested interest in the current regime of power? Were membership funds used liberally by the Board to hire legal advice in order to justify the scapegoating of a reformer, turned whistle blower? The questions go on and on. Some of them ultimately may be resolved in court but what is clear already is that Nigel MacLennan has not been treated in a fair manner, if we use everyday criteria of common sense and decency.

If the stitch up hypothesis is in doubt, look at how Carol McGuinness, in a follow-up document to that unedifying and ill-advised video, made it quite clear that even if Nigel MacLennan were to be re-instated on appeal, as a member of the Society, he would still not be permitted back to his role as the President Elect. This nothing-left-to-chance approach, reflecting the persecutory intent of the Board, sticks out like a sore thumb in this planned and vindictive attack on a man whose career has now suffered immediate detriment. 

I can find no justification for this pre-emptive strike from McGuinness, on behalf the Board, within the Statutes and Rules. Does she offer no rule-based rationale in the script she is reading because one simply does not exist? This brings us back to Fromm’s notion of ‘irrational authority’. Those in power often do and say things, simply because they can. But do we have to believe this travesty of justice? And given that under Statute 20 of the Society, the Board should have been chaired on an interim basis by MacLennan not McGuinness, is there an Alice in Wonderland feel to this whole scenario? 

We know that such a surreal quality can indeed emerge from group think, especially when it leads to scapegoating in order to create an illusion of homeostasis and harmony (Baron, 2005; Leyens et al. 2000). The warring factions of the SMT and the Trustees could take temporary comfort in a common enemy to be eliminated, but the facts of the crisis are still there, with or without the removal of MacLennan. Facts do not disappear because they are ignored conveniently by displacement activity or an ostrich stance.

Keeping the membership in the dark

If a making-the-rules-up-as-you-go-along approach to governance now characterises the workings of the cabal, then another supportive tactic has been information control. Nowhere has this been more obvious than in the silence in the pages of The Psychologist. An exception has been the printing of the statement about the expulsion of MacLennan from McGuinness (giving the BPS a free noticeboard posting without editorial comment or analysis), as well as the link to her video. No right of reply was offered to MacLennan. If this were a normal magazine it would reflect the normal rules of journalism and both sides of a story would have been offered, or at least taken into account.

However, this is not a normal magazine. For example, the political turbulence in the Society, should have warranted some commentary but none has been evident. Its inside cover reminds us every month that it is ‘…the magazine of the British Psychological Society…’. If this means that it obeys the contingent expectations of those running the BPS, then this is actually a fair and valid description. However, maybe members of the Society have broader expectations (such as it being a forum for free debate about the current legitimation crisis). Such expectations are indeed raised, conveniently, by the subsequent cover description ‘…It provides a forum for communication, discussion and controversy among all members of the Society…’. Has there been any actual sign of the latter, in practice, in the past turbulent year? Why are ordinary members still playing catch up about the financial scandal in the Society, the fat file of complaints being held by the Charity Commission and the expensive legal shenanigans to expel Nigel MacLennan?

During the crisis, the monthly column of the Chief Executive Officer suddenly disappeared without editorial comment, and we slowly became aware that he was ‘not in his office’ and his function was then taken on by his Deputy, Diane Ashby. And before the President, Hazel McLoughlin, also disappeared from the pages because she had resigned, citing family reasons, the content of her column revealed nothing to the membership of the chaos and tensions, which led to the resignation of the Vice President David Murphy. He explained on Twitter that this was because of his concerns about both governance and finance.  

However, the role of this ‘magazine’ has not gone unquestioned. For example, here is a reply to Pat Harvey from the editor (12.12.20) responding to her criticism of The Psychologist failing to provide information of legitimate concern to the BPS membership:

We are not a ‘house journal’, we are a magazine. Our responsibility is not to speak for the Society or to align with any documents it might publish; it is to provide a forum for communication, discussion and controversy among members and beyond.

This restatement of the confusing and contradictory blurb, cited earlier from the inside cover of The Psychologist, does not cease to be confusing and contradictory simply because it is robotically restated. Does the membership deserve a better journalistic service, during the current legitimation crisis of the BPS, than this sort of vacuous rhetorical gambit? The supine post-it-board role offered by The Psychologist on behalf of the current BPS leadership, reminds us of one of many of Orwell’s dire warnings about democracy: ‘Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations.’

The exchange between Pat Harvey and the editor of The Psychologist, Jon Sutton, did not end with the above restated confusion. She also wrote to the Chair of the Editorial Advisory Committee, Richard Stephens, starting with a complaint about the narrow and prejudicial role of The Psychologist, when being biddable and posting the offensive video. She made other criticisms of the magazine as well. This was the response she received from Stephens:

Thanks for your letter and for raising these concerns. I plan to table these for discussion at the next meeting of the Psychologist and Digest Editorial Advisory Committee on 24th June. I felt that your first raised point warranted some urgency of response so I discussed it today with our editor, Jon Sutton. Jon’s view was that while the video featuring Professor Carol McGuinness as Interim Chair of the Board of Trustee has been widely disseminated among BPS members, it is unlisted on YouTube. Given that The Psychologist has a much wider audience, Jon reflected that it’s inclusion in the piece “‘The Society is at a crossroads’” was not appropriate. On that basis the video has been removed. I will feedback in due course following our meeting on the 24th

This is a small sign of good sense and fairness from Richard Stephens, although at the time of writing the video is still available on YouTube.  Will this be the start of a period of genuine honest reflection from the Advisory Committee? Would the video have been removed had it not been for these critical questions from Pat Harvey? In my view, it seems as though those below the cabal level in the Society are very slowly waking up to the serious challenges that the legitimation crisis is posing for freedom of expression and balanced and open journalism in the future pages of The Psychologist. Elsewhere on the blog I have addressed the matter of censorship in the Society.

The ethical and legal culpability of the Trustees

The Charity Commission continues to work with the Society to bring it into ‘regulatory compliance’. This raises questions about the role of the Trustees in the recent past. How many of them (other than Nigel MacLennan), out of public interest, took their concerns about poor governance and financial irregularities to the Charity Commission or the press? 

Many resignations have been evident in recent months, including the President and Vice President. Are they now prepared to offer a full and frank account to the membership of what happened in the Board, which went so badly wrong? This could be a starting point for the ‘root and branch’ reform now required, to reverse the demise of the organisation. 

Will they admit that the conflicts of interest inherent to the current definition of a Board (which date back to a lack of specificity in the Royal Charter arrangements in 1988) have been routinely out of sync with current expectations of properly independent trustees in charities today? The current Board of Trustees is a sham because its members all have conflicts of interest and there are no outsiders from the Society to offer impartial oversight. Given the legitimation crisis, should the current Trustees at least own up to this basic fact, resign and insist on a properly constituted Board in line with Charity Commission expectations?  

And if it turns out that the negligence, or worse, of some Trustees has cost the BPS dearly, will they be held liable for these costs, as Charity Commission regulations allow? Will BPS members now seek to hold Trustees liable for the seeming losses incurred to the Society, by their apparent lack of oversight? Will that liability also extend to those who resigned but were in place during that period of apparent lack of oversight (in legal terms this is called ‘legacy liability’)?

This particular legitimation crisis, like all others, never stops posing questions for democracy. We all (not just a few pushy malcontents) need to keep asking them. The passivity in our current zeitgeist about trying to influence events around us does not have to lead to fatalism. We can still challenge the cabal and the current shambles in the BPS, as this blog and Nigel MacLennan have already demonstrated. The more of us taking up this challenge, the less likely that victimisation will be seen and the more likely that the Society will be saved from its own self-inflicted wounds. 

Baron, R. (2005). So right it’s wrong: Groupthink and the ubiquitous nature of polarized group decision making. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. 37: 35.

Habermas, J. (1974) Legitimation Crisis Boston: Beacon Press. 

Joynson, R. B. (1989). The Burt Affair. New York: Routledge

Leyens, J. Ph., Paladino, M. P., Rodriguez, R. T., Vaes, J., Demoulin, S., Rodriguez, A. P., & Gaunt, R. (2000) The emotional side of prejudice: The attribution of secondary emotions to ingroups and outgroups. Personality and Social Psychology Review. 4, 2, 186–97.

Marks,D.F  (2019) The Hans Eysenck affair: time to correct the scientific record Journal of Health Psychology 24, 4, 409–42.

Pilgrim, D. and Treacher, A. (1991) Clinical Psychology Observed London: Routledge.

Board of Trustees, Expulsion of President-Elect, Governance

The End of Membership Democracy in the BPS?

The campaign in the self-serving bunker at the centre of the BPS continues unabated. Its main character, which we have documented in our posts in the past few months, includes a number of strands. Some reflect the tactics of evasion and secrecy. They include complaints being ignored, as well as concerns (that are not complaints) being turned into complaints and sent into a rabbit hole.  The complicit non-reporting of the crisis in ‘the magazine of the British Psychological Society’ has been a trusted management mechanism to keep members in the dark. Dictates have been sent out by ‘Trustees’ to Senate members to demand their silence in a comical pantomime of control freakery.

Other tactics have involved clear projection: a bullying and high-handed culture of management has accused its critics of being the bullies. The power asymmetry here between the parties is ignored but that acknowledgment would require a capacity for honest reflectiveness. Journalists just doing their job in a democracy have been threatened with legal action. By any standards of common sense and fair judgement, this precarious regime of power has had a probity bypass. 

The most egregious example of this has been the ‘investigation’ and subsequent expulsion of the President Elect. His sin was to be open from the beginning about reforming the governance arrangements in an organisation which, for years, had flouted the normal expectations of charity law and good practice guidelines offered by the Charity Commission.

What price membership democracy?

The literal price of being in the BPS is known to its membership. For now, some of those fees are maintaining the high salary of a CEO who is still ‘out of the office’, so remains unable to fulfil his duties. Those in the bunker have told us nothing, so members are left to speculate. 

In the few days that have elapsed since the expulsion of the President Elect was announced (in a scripted account – crafted by whom?), matters have deteriorated further. The unprecedented video from the ‘Interim Chair’ of the Board of Trustees was a callous public disparagement of the President Elect. Speaking from an office and role that, under Statute 20 of the Society, she still has no right to hold, her personalised career-threatening attack upon him remains on Youtube for the world to see.

This scandal now has worsened.  A rapid election is to be held to replace the summarily deposed President-Elect before his appeal has even been heard. From well before he took office there were overt intentions to obstruct him wherever possible. We believe that there is evidence to support this that will be made public. Like the ‘investigation’ of the allegations against him this is a travesty. History will judge those responsible for deposing him, so this faux process of justice will peter out to its discreditable conclusion.

In case members are getting too excited about choosing someone new and untainted by what has gone before, they need to be prepared for a disappointment. This is the score. Only candidates from the current Board of Trustees or Senate members will be permitted to stand. This is the very group under whose ‘oversight’ the Charity Commission has become involved on an ongoing basis. There is an active police investigation into an alleged major fraud (watch this space next month). The self-same group from which the Vice-President resigned,  citing issues about “…governance oversight, escalating expenditure and lack of openness and transparency…”, which he communicated to the Charity Commission.  Former President, Professor Peter Kinderman, informs us that several years ago “…When I was President, I was routinely excluded from key decisions, was threatened with legal action over ‘fraud’ (I was completely exonerated, of course) and forced to resign (as Vice-President) for advocating for what is now effectively BPS policy…” .

What sort of real choice are members now given?   

The candidate will be drawn from a pool of complicit individuals. They assume that everything in the garden is rosy and the much-vaunted £6 million Change Programme will supercharge the BPS, when the membership to date have been shown no substantive evidence to support this wishful thinking. 

Meanwhile, for now, any vestige of membership democracy has been placed on indefinite hold. We can only hope that needed legal proceedings, active media interest and decisive action from the Charity Commission will, between them, resolve this sinister and shameful demise of the public face of psychology in the UK once and for all. 

BPSWatch – Editorial Collective

Board of Trustees, Financial issues, Governance

Twenty Tough Questions for ‘the BPS’

Questions are coming thick and fast from colleagues new to the story of the crisis in the BPS. Of course, they are new to it because, amongst other things, the Board of Trustees (BoT) and Senior Management Team (SMT) have been secretive about the facts. In the past year nothing has appeared in The Psychologist (relevant note: ‘the magazine of the British Psychological Society’) to give the slightest hint of any organisational problems. The CEO’s monthly homilies petered out with no editorial explanation. The President, who has recently resigned, made absolutely no mention of the troubled state of the organisation in her final ‘reports’.

This blog and an increasing number of reputable journalists are now bringing into public gaze the extent of organisational dysfunction in the Society. We have been trying our best to do what the BPS has palpably failed to do in relation to transparency. However, we are not private detectives or forensic accountants and nor do we have the investigatory powers of the Charity Commission. The latter is hovering nearby, but to date it has not fully disclosed its intentions in relation to its ongoing ‘engagement’ with the BoT. Given the very large file of complaints against the Society, we are left wondering what will be the tipping point for them to announce a Statutory Inquiry.

The 20 questions that require answers

Here we raise some questions crossing our minds and those put to us by perplexed colleagues. Ipso facto, we cannot answer them definitively but we can pose them in good faith on behalf of the membership.

  1. Why is the CEO still in post and being paid (from membership fees) but ‘not in his office’?

2. The Finance Director left the Society abruptly just before Christmas last – what were the circumstances surrounding that departure?

3. Was the expelled President Elect genuinely allowed to conduct his duties and was he given access to information appropriate for that task?

4. Was there a deliberate strategy on the part of the BoT and SMT to marginalise and disempower him, given his election pledges to rectify governance problems in the Society?

5. Was there a large fraud conducted in the Society that is still being investigated by the police? 

6. What recruitment checks were conducted on the person who was alleged to have committed the fraud?

7. Who appointed this person?

8. Was the arson attack on the Leicester office during this period of turmoil (unreported to the membership) linked in any way to the alleged fraud investigation?

9. Did the BPS report the arson to the Charity Commission, as it is supposed to do under their guidance?

10. Why did the SMT refuse to give the BoT access to critical information, about the £6 million ‘change programme’?

11. What oversight was the BoT providing of the SMT and how was the effectiveness or otherwise of that oversight assessed? 

12. Did the BoT consider that its culture of information restriction, which we have experienced directly ourselves, reasonable for a membership organisation professing a value of openness and transparency?

13. Why did the BoT make public the alleged grounds for the expulsion of the President Elect in advance of his appeal?

14. How can the President Elect have a fair appeal, when it appears to have been already prejudiced?

15. In light of answers to the above questions, has the President Elect been subjected to a ‘kangaroo court’ or ‘show trial’?

16. Was there a planned and wilful campaign to remove the President Elect by the BoT and SMT, as both a radical reformer and a whistle blower, as soon as he was elected?

17. Have journalists making legitimate enquiries, about all of the above matters, been threatened with legal action by the BPS?   

18. Had the Vice-President, who resigned citing concerns about finance and governance, already ensured that those concerns were reported fully to the Charity Commission?

19. The ACAS definition of bullying is this: “Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, involving an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.”  Accordingly, does the action of broadcasting a video denouncing the President Elect constitute bullying by the BPS? 

20. Finally, does the BoT now knowingly have a policy to ward off legitimate questions from members about governance matters, by alleging that the questioning, in of itself, constitutes bullying and harassment of BPS staff? 

The final question is rhetorical; as victims of this tactic we can vouch that the answer is in the affirmative. Some of the questions on the list relate to criminal matters and others to aspects of due diligence and common decency. Ordinary members not only pose them now on reasonable grounds, but they deserve reasonable answers. The BoT have warded off the inconvenient truth surrounding the questions, using a mixture of silence, glib evasions, bureaucratic obfuscation and legal threats. 

Is this how we expect a properly functioning learned organisation to operate, with its rhetorical adherence to the principle of openness and transparency? We ask readers to please send us any other questions that come to mind, which we might have missed from the above list. If we cannot answer them we can at least share them.

We will be posting some more detailed analyses of these questions over the course of the next couple of weeks.

The BPSWatch Editorial Collective

Board of Trustees, Governance

Sins of omission – more rhetoric of justification from the BPS Board of Trustees

From the Editors of BPSWatch…

The crisis of governance in the BPS has been rumbling on for the past year. Slowly journalistic interest appeared, with articles in Third Sector and the Daily Telegraph leaking to the public what the BPS Board or The Psychologist had failed to disclose to the membership. This invites us to reflect on what is not said as well as what is said, when considering organisational rhetoric to justify the status quo (philosophers interested in absence dub this an ‘omissive critique’.).  

For those of us who think a better future must start with an honest reflection on the present, then we cannot rely on the preferred account of reality declared by the BPS Board of Trustees (BoT). They are not the whole problem (that is systemic and cultural as we have noted in several of our postings) but they are the current living proof of that deeper and longer problematic picture.  In that context, we now turn to a brief omissive critique of an important Board statement.

The Board response to the recent article in the Daily Telegraph

On April 26th 2021, Hayley Dixon in the Daily Telegraph provided us with a rough but accurate sketch of the governance crisis and its consequences (see here). Here we provide in full the ‘official’ response offered from ’the BPS’ then next day (see here).

Responding to an article in the Daily Telegraph, Interim Chair of the Board of Trustees, Professor Carol McGuinness said:

For more than a century, the British Psychological Society has promoted the practice of psychology and advanced professional thinking on often complex and contentious issues. With more than 60,000 diverse members, debates on professional issues are often vigorous and there is sometimes heated disagreement between our members.

The past 18 months have been turbulent for the BPS as we go through a process of significant and much needed organisational transformation. During this period several working groups have considered very sensitive topics which have gone through an expert and democratic process.

Our guidelines for psychologists working with gender, sexuality and relationship diversity are not, in our view, at all contentious. They require our members not to discriminate against individuals and to treat them with respect. This includes the use of appropriate, inclusive language, which all patients and clients should be able to expect.

The guidelines relate to adults and young people and not to the treatment of children, and professionals understand the difference. Our guidance does not contain any reference to the prescribing of puberty blockers for children under the age of 16.

There is general debate across the health sector on the extension of limited prescribing rights for different professions, something that has brought benefits to patients through, for example, the work of nurse prescribers. There are strong views among our members about whether some psychologists should be granted prescribing rights, with vigorous positions presented by those both for and against this potential change.

However, our research to date on prescribing rights, following a two-year consultation process – that it could be useful in certain settings – is simply a contribution to the debate.

The debate on prescribing has no connection whatsoever to our guidance on gender, sexuality and relationship diversity. We have always been clear that the issue of prescribing rights will require further debate and indeed the BPS does not currently have a fixed position on this issue. We have repeatedly stated that we will continue to listen to and engage with our members on this important issue.

Ultimately, the BPS does not have the power to decide on this issue, as it is a process governed by Parliament following extensive public consultation. We are disappointed that the Daily Telegraph has chosen to repeat the views of a small minority of BPS members who are unwilling to accept the outcome of our consultations and policy positions.

As a board of trustees we have been open about the need for improvements across the society which is why we committed a significant amount of money to our ongoing three-year transformation programme. The BPS is not perfect, and there is always room for improvement in any organisation.

It is clear to us that stronger governance processes will be required in the future, and this work is well underway. We have kept the Charity Commission fully informed of developments throughout and continue to engage with them.”

An ommisive critique of the statement

The reader can draw their own immediate conclusions about the adequacy of this response. Here we only want to list what was not said in this statement.

1.  Professor McGuinness was voted into the interim Chair role of the BoT in the wake of the resignations of both the President and Vice President (see here and here – you may need to register (free) to access these articles). This reflected a wilful refusal of the Board to comply with Statute 20 of the Society: the chairing role should have been handed over immediately to the Chair Elect. Her authority in the Chair is at best dubious and at worst totally illegitimate. The naïve reader would be unaware of this legitimation challenge for the Board still today. 

2. The allusion to diverse views and heated debate does not mention that debate has been actively blocked, with articles censored (see here), review groups closed down and lobbying about policies ignored.

3.   The statement does not mention the routine use of threats of legal action against Society members and others such as accusing dissatisfied complainants of harassment in pursuit of their case.

4.   Many objections have been raised about the very lack of the democracy and full expertise drawn upon in policy formation in the Society. These have been ignored in relation to the prescribing debacle, the contentious gender document and the peremptory closure of the memory and law group.

5.   Describing the gender document as ‘not at all contentious’ fails to mention those objecting, on legitimate grounds, to it both before and after the legal change on December 1st 2020. However, the prefix ‘in our view’ is relevant because this reveals the self-interest in depicting reality in a particular manner. 

6.  The claim that there is no connection between the prescribing and the gender polices fails to mention the overlap of decision-makers in the two groups and the fact that a consideration of hormone prescription was part of the first of them.

7.   The BoT are ‘disappointed’ in the article from Hayley Dixon, but the statement does not mention that the BPS was unhelpful  and, we believe, invoked legal threats about its publication. We understand that other approaches from Third Sector encountered the same aggressive non-cooperation. Journalists encountering such resistance tend to suspect that a story is worth telling.

8.   The commitment proffered about the change programme in the BPS as an organisational solution assumes that it will work in the absence of honest reflection about the current crisis of both legitimacy and governance: the very point we keep repeating and illustrating on this blog.

9.   The claim that the BoT continues ‘to engage’ with the Charity Commission is the most important rhetorical query for us. To what degree has that engagement been necessary and why? Will they now make all the changes necessary to bring the Society into regulatory compliance? Does the BoT even admit that any changes need to be made? If so will the Trustees need to resign and a fresh start made under completely new governance arrangements?

These questions are all important, the response from Professor McGuinness offers us no clues at all. Surely the membership deserves a full and frank statement about all of these matters, if the alleged principle of openness and transparency is to be put into practice. 

The Editors, BPSWatch.

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.

Board of Trustees, Governance

BPS – Failures in meeting its charitable obligations?

David Pilgrim’s piece on this site draws attention to the dysfunctionality of the BPS and raises questions about the constitution of the Board of Trustees.

Here I want to take a closer look at that issue.

The BPS has massive problems with its infrastructure.

The British Psychological Society is a charity, and as such has to abide by certain rules laid down by the Charity Commission.  The Charity Commission website defines the Activities of the BPS  “As specified by the Charter, Statutes and Rules of the Society”.  

The Royal Charter states: “The objects of the Society should be to promote the advancement and diffusion of a knowledge of psychology … setting up a high standard of professional education and knowledge.”. And “To maintain a Code of Ethics and Conduct for the guidance of Members and to compel the observance of strict rules of professional conduct as a condition of membership.” (my emphasis – I believe that the BPS fails dismally in this regard, and I intend to address this issue in a subsequent blog).

The BPS Code of Ethics required by the Royal Charter (3.4 Integrity) states that psychologists should act with integrity which “ … includes being honest, truthful, accurate and consistent in one’s actions, words … Psychologists value honesty, probity, accuracy, clarity and fairness … in all facets of their scientific endeavours.”.  And that there should be “Honesty, openness and candour; Accurate unbiased representation; Fairness; Avoidance of exploitation and conflicts of interest …”.  Rule 1 of the Member Conduct Rules (also required by the Charter) is that “Members must not act in a way that damages, or is likely to damage the reputation of the BPS (or is contrary to the object of the Society as set out in the Royal Charter).”.  

I think that the Society also fails badly in these requirements. How can that happen? 

To answer that question, we need to look at the rules for how charities are governed.

According to the Charity Commission website  (https://www.gov.uk/set-up-a-charity) “Trustees are responsible for the operation of your charity. They must show they understand their legal requirements…. your trustees’ background and experiences can help: bring different points of view to a discussion, give insight into your beneficiaries’ needs and experience, make contacts in the community, think of new ways of doing things.”.  And “As trustees, you have a duty of care to prevent risks to your charity’s reputation as well as the people it helps. As trustees, you must: always act in the best interests of the charity – you must not let your personal interests, views or prejudices affect your conduct as a trustee, act reasonably and responsibly in all matters relating to your charity – act with as much care as if you were dealing with your own affairs, taking advice if you need it, only use your charity’s income and property for the purposes set out in its governing document, make decisions in line with good practice and the rules set by your charity’s governing document, including excluding any trustee who has a conflict of interest from discussions or decision-making on the matter.”. 

This is what is said about “Risks and trustee liability”:  

“You can be liable to your charity if you act unlawfully or negligently as a trustee. Although your charity might run up debts or other liabilities as a result of decisions you make, you and the other trustees won’t be liable if you have:  acted lawfully, responsibly and reasonably, followed the rules in your charity’s governing document, taken reasonable steps to manage risks.  But if you can’t prove this, you could be ‘in breach of trust’ to your own charity. Trustees act jointly when running a charity, so the trustees as a group would be liable to repay any loss to the charity.”.

The Commission can take trustees to court to recover funds lost to their charity as a result of a breach of trust.  (https://www.gov.uk/guidance/trustee-board-people-and-skills?step-by-step-nav=3dd66b86-ce29-4f31-bfa2-a5a18b877f11).

It specifies that there is a “legal duty to act in your charity’s best interests, manage your charity’s resources responsibly and act with reasonable care and skill.”.  And that it is “vital that Trustees deal with conflicts of interest, implement appropriate financial controls, manage risks and take appropriate advice when you need to.”  (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-essential-trustee-what-you-need-to-know-cc3/the-essential-trustee-what-you-need-to-know-what-you-need-to-do).

Now let’s take a look at who are the Trustees for the BPS:  

Statute 18 of The Royal Charter (Royal Charter and Statutes, BPS, 2017) states “The Board of Trustees shall comprise the Officers of the Society and other members … Presidential team, the President and The President elect… The Officers of the Society…. The Honorary Treasurer and Honorary General Secretary. The Board of Trustees shall include the following other members  … The Chairs of the Boards of the Society; At least two and not more than five other members co-opted to the Board in a manner determined by the Representative Council in accordance with the Rules.  The President shall chair all meetings of the Board of Trustees at which he or she is present and in his or her absence the President-Elect or the Vice President.”.

 So, I believe that a huge problem for the BPS is that its Trustees are individuals who are deeply embedded in its operational status quo. The people who are meant to have oversight of the actions of the Society are the same people taking those actions (or in many cases, inactions).   

Their duties are specified: “The Board of Trustees shall conduct the business of the Society consistently with provisions of the Charter and these Statutes and shall supervise the expenditure of all moneys on account of the business of the Society and do all such other things as are necessary for the transaction of the business of the Society and the furtherance of its objects… The Board of Trustees may, from time to time, at their discretion appoint from among their members or otherwise such Committees as shall appear expedient and may, from time to time, modify or dissolve any Committee. Any Committee so appointed shall in exercise of the powers delegated to it conduct its affairs in accordance with such regulations as may be imposed on it by the Board of Trustees.”.

There is also “a representative council which shall advise the Board of Trustees (“the Representative Council”). It will comprise:

(1) The Officers of the Society; the President, Honorary General Secretary, Honorary Treasurer, President-Elect and Vice President;

(2) The Chairs of the Boards of the Society;

(3) A representative from each of the Member Networks approved by the Board of Trustees;

(4) Co-opted Members who shall serve for one year as prescribed in the Rules.”.

So – to summarise – the Trustees, who are meant to impartially have oversight of the functioning of the Society, are the same people who effectively run the Society, and there is also a Representative Council which advises the Trustees, which is mainly the same people again.  So if you include being a member of the Society, many of the Trustees are in quadruple roles (e.g. Member, Chair of a Board, member of the Representative Council and Trustee).

At the time of writing there are 12 Trustees listed on the Charity Commission website, and an additional one on the BPS site.  Of the 13 on the BPS site, 12 have, or have had, senior positions in the BPS system (e.g. Chairs of Boards, Divisions, Sections etc).

How can Trustees in quadruple roles fit in with the demands of the Charity Commission to avoid conflicts of interest?  I believe that avoidance of such a conflict is imperative, and not simply that it is there, but that it is seen to be there.  At the moment it looks exactly the opposite, that the Trustee group is likely to be seen to be full of conflicts of interest.

It appears that the Statutes of the Society regarding Trustees and other roles are such that they are in direct opposition to the requirements of the Charity Commission.  How on earth do you square that circle?

There is a serious and urgent need for the BPS to review this structure, and for it to be clearly seen to be and complying with Charity Commission regulations.

Ashley Conway  1/12/20