The Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) national pharmacy board elections are over for another year. The results were announced on 1 June 2016 and, although the number of votes received from eligible members rose by 16.4% (an increase likely attributable to the rise in membership last year), overall voter turnout was much the same as 2015 at 11.5%.
A figure of 10–12% has always been considered a lower than expected turnout. And yet it is comparable with other years and is in line with other professional associations and learned societies. The Royal College of General Practitioners, for example, reported a 12.5% turnout for council election results around the same time.
Some vocal members of the pharmacy profession were quick to pass verdict. The turnout was “disappointing” and something or someone was to blame. This sentiment was echoed on Twitter, where one individual tweeted that the low voter turnout was “a validation of the apathy of the profession. Quick to criticise — indifferent when given the opportunity to influence”.
One person tried to account for the turnout as being a result of bad timing (e.g. petitions to oppose community pharmacy funding cuts were being circulated), and another blamed low awareness of the RPS election process and a lack of coverage by The Pharmaceutical Journal. One English Pharmacy Board member even cited “community pharmacy despondency” as one of the reasons for the low voter turnout.
But by blaming members, who are funding the activities of the pharmacy boards, we risk giving up our opportunity for improvement and change.
Why would members show interest in the election if candidates fail to explain their plans and ideas?
None of this is new. There has been a consistent level of participation in recent years, suggesting that members do not see the value in voting in RPS elections. But this does not amount to hard evidence of members disengaging with the Society.
RPS members are hardworking healthcare professionals, who are passionate about helping patients by improving their quality of life. They are not obliged to be members of the RPS. Members have exercised free choice in deciding to be part of a membership organisation and they pay for the privilege. They demonstrate their commitment to the Society each year when they pay the membership fee. Yet for some or several reasons, the majority of members do not vote in the RPS board elections.
A survey conducted by The Pharmaceutical Journal in January 2016 revealed that 36% of respondents said they did not vote because they did not see the point and a further 21% said they were deterred from voting by a lack of appealing candidates. The difficulty of the election process itself was also cited by a couple of members as a reason for not voting.
In the RPS board elections, members were not faced with a stark choice. The RPS offered a long-term vision for the profession of pharmacy, and none of the candidates in this election proposed an alternate view. The Pharmaceutical Journal asked the candidates to list their top two priorities for the boards, and it is clear that all candidates shared similar priorities to the RPS boards. Therefore, members were not deciding between two different strategies or policies. If members felt their vote could change anything about the direction or priorities of the RPS, perhaps they would have given the elections more consideration.
Until RPS members are faced with a pharmacy board election that could significantly affect their lives and careers, the voter turnout is likely to remain where it is now.
Engagement is a two-way street
Although outward communication from the RPS and The Pharmaceutical Journal is important, it is but one stream by which members are encouraged to vote. In order for members to get to grips with why they should vote and who they should vote for, election candidate engagement with members is vital – whether on social media, through the RPS election hustings, the correspondence section of The Pharmaceutical Journal website or face-to-face with members.
This year, only 13 of the 21 candidates participated in the RPS hustings. Just 11 (and not a single Welsh candidate) contributed a letter to The Pharmaceutical Journal’s correspondence section, while only five took advantage of the opportunity to submit more than one letter. There may be valid reasons for this, but why would members show interest in the election if candidates fail to explain their plans and ideas?
Those who accuse members of apathy or doubt a member’s commitment to the Society may think the RPS has only one thing to offer, which is the function of national boards in contributing to healthcare policies in the UK.
But the RPS offers a package of benefits to its members, including policymaking, political lobbying, full access to The Pharmaceutical Journal and Clinical Pharmacist, professional development, learning resources, conferences and events, networking opportunities, professional support, and many other resources. In response to the RPS annual survey in 2015, members placed The Pharmaceutical Journal, Medicines, ethics and practice guide, professional guidance, Clinical Pharmacist and Pharmaceutical Press publications as the most valuable services they were receiving from the RPS – not voting rights in the board elections.
The fact that around 92% of members renew each year and new members continue to join the Society suggests that the RPS is delivering value to its membership.