This article was updated on 30 July 2016 to add a clarification.
On 22 June 2016, the president of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS), Ash Soni, lost his presidency.
Yet the presidency was not lost during the process for electing the president of the Society. The presidency was not even a matter up for discussion in that meeting. Soni lost his presidency because the 14 members of the English Pharmacy Board (EPB), which counts Soni among its members, chose not to re-elect him to the Assembly
[see clarification below]
,the tri-nation governing body that appoints the president, thereby making Soni ineligible to be president of the Society for the year ahead.
The EPB, without consulting Assembly members from Scotland and Wales who were elected by their nations, ousted the incumbent president of the Society by secret ballot. And this was despite the president representing members from all of Great Britain, not England alone.
And while the EPB broke no rules or laws, the 14 members of the Assembly had no say in whether Soni continued as the leader of the organisation.
In response to the news, some RPS members took to social networks and questioned how Soni could be forced out, despite his passion, experience and dedication to his profession. One letter sent to The Pharmaceutical Journal claimed the EPB had “committed a coup d’etat” and that the action was “detrimental to the reputation of the Society”. We also received letters questioning the governance of the RPS and asking the Society to “explain to its members the thought processes behind the decision to remove the current president”
, which the RPS has subsequently done.
However, this incident sheds light on one of the major challenges that professional and learned societies the world over are struggling to contend with – how to redefine themselves in an age where the constituencies, members, markets, technology trends and business-to-consumer behaviours move at a pace that risks rendering member organisations irrelevant to their members.
The RPS is now more than five years old. The current governance structure was designed when the regulatory function of the Society was separated from its professional leadership functions. The various boards and bodies governing the Society were established to ensure all three countries were represented, as well as to create a centralised overarching governing body that delegates all pharmacy work to the nations (alongside other delegations of duties) and deals with the strategy and governance of the whole organisation. Good practice encourages progressive organisations to revisit governance from time to time. The Pharmaceutical Journal believes that the Society will review its governance structure, as any other sensible organisation does.
In the book Race for relevance: 5 radical changes for associations, Coerver and Byers have named the governance structure and processes of associations as the “biggest impediment to effecting change”. For a relatively small society, the RPS governance structure may seem rather complex. There are three national boards — one for England (14 members), Scotland (11 members) and Wales (10 members) — that allow the Society to adapt to work within three politically devolved regions. Out of these 35 people, 11 are chosen for the RPS Assembly. There are also boards for Pharmaceutical Press and the RPS Faculty, as well as the RPS executive board, among others. These various boards equate to around 100 RPS governance positions (although, of course, the same person may hold several of these), which, in a professional body that employs around 200 members of staff in addition to those on the boards, means around one-third of the Society’s activities are centred around governance.
Although this is not dissimilar to many other societies, in which hundreds of hours are spent in, or preparing for, board meetings, the costs, time, energy and effort to support the board members is immense, and regardless of the passion and dedication of elected board members, maintaining effectiveness and reducing political entanglement becomes a huge burden for the executive teams, especially the chief executive. A members’ organisation primarily occupied in the business of governance risks being less able to respond to the needs of its members, and potentially becoming less relevant to the lives of members and board members alike.
Following the news that Soni had lost his presidency, several members said they believed it was only right that members should choose the RPS president. However, as rightly pointed out by former EPB member Anthony Cox, in response to a letter to The Pharmaceutical Journal about the current controversy, the boards are elected by the membership, “who should have the expectation that those they choose should have an opportunity to contribute to the RPS in both policy and choice of leadership of the Society”. But with only around 10% voter turnout for the EPB election in 2016, it may be that many did not realise the direct link between their vote in the RPS pharmacy board elections and who becomes RPS president – until now.
Members may complain about the system when individuals are elected to the boards without receiving any votes. In 2015, spaces for the Scottish and Welsh pharmacy boards were filled by members who were elected unopposed, without any input from membership as to whether these members had the leadership ability, competence or commitment to lead their profession on a national level. In theory, the next president could be someone who was elected unopposed, and therefore not chosen by the membership at any stage.
All those elected to the Assembly are passionate about pharmacy and there is no reason to assume that the next president will be any less committed or qualified than Soni. The question worth asking is whether it is time for the RPS to review its governance structure and develop a new structure that represents members, oversees the performance and priorities of the Society, and is smaller at the same time.
A revised structure could aim to enhance engagement from individual board members, increase the accountability of elected representatives to their constituency and promote a more seamless two-way communication between members and leaders of the Society.
What would happen if each national board had three elected members, and only the chairs of each board served on the RPS Assembly as well? What if the fourth member of the Assembly, the president, was chosen directly by members to represent the profession? And what if the fifth member was a pharmacist from another country to ensure RPS activities have an international and global perspective as well?
This is only one possible model, and undoubtedly not the best one. Whatever the solution, it is time to think imaginatively about how the Society is organised and run. It should embrace the need for change, listen to those members who speak up and encourage the more silent members to share their views. The Pharmaceutical Journal can be one of the forums where these discussions happen.
- The majority of members of English Pharmacy Board chose not to vote for Ash Soni, not all 14 members.
- Since this editorial was written, Martin Astbury has been elected as the new RPS president.