Sibby Buckle, newly appointed as treasurer for the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS), is on holiday in Scotland when we catch up and — despite an initial battle with a recalcitrant Wifi connection — she is more than happy to take time out to talk about her new role.
That said, our conversation is taking place just four days after the death of Queen Elizabeth II and, naturally, this was in the foreground of our conversation.
“I think we should be honoured, as the RPS, that Queen Elizabeth II was our patron,” Buckle says.
“She was such a great leader, in terms of her diligence, her insight, and her ability to be able to speak to people at all levels of society. She gained an awful lot of respect.”
As we move on to talk about Buckle’s career, she explains the diversity of her previous roles across pharmacy, marketing and business.
Having graduated in pharmacy from the University of Strathclyde in 1983, Buckle completed her preregistration training with Boots, going on to become the company’s buyer of brown goods — TV, video and audio — and in the process becoming the first pharmacist to hold a position as an international buyer.
Later, she was appointed as group marketing manager for Boots UK’s over-the-counter healthcare business, before going on to a role at Boots Healthcare International, in which she led its international PR and professional relations team.
In 2000, she decided to return to pharmacy practice, holding locum and consultancy roles in the community sector and, in 2005, returned to Boots UK as group pharmacy manager.
Here, we talk about how Buckle feels her experiences have prepared her for the role as RPS treasurer: to be, as she puts it, an “ambassador for our members”.
What prompted you to put yourself forward for the role of treasurer?
The very first thing I want to say is how honoured I am. I am very proud to be part of the RPS; I’ve been a member for nearly 40 years.
I was first elected to the RPS English Pharmacy Board in 2012, but I am very conscious of the viability and sustainability of the organisation. If I can contribute to that, and ask the right questions as the treasurer, then that’s a role that I feel I can do.
It’s a huge responsibility, so I don’t underestimate the challenge ahead of me for the next two years, but I’m looking forward to that; and I’d like to think that the RPS will be around for another 180 years. I feel very strongly that I want to make the RPS as viable, as profitable and as forward-looking an organisation as it can be.
What are the responsibilities of treasurer?
As the treasurer, I’m an elected member of the Assembly. There is a finance director and a finance team that carries out the operational side of the business. I see my role as holding this team to account and holding the Assembly to account, and the chief executive, in terms of challenging some of the decisions that might be made and the investments that the RPS would be looking to pursue.
The RPS regulations say that the treasurer monitors the implementation of the Society’s financial policies, and is accountable to the membership — quite rightly — for the allocation of resources against the strategic priorities, the financial performance against budget, the Society’s asset strategy, and its reserves and investment policies.
One of the commitments that the RPS has made, for example, has been on the environmental, social and governance policy. In its commitment to dealing with climate change and our awareness of the importance of that for our members, the the RPS has committed not to invest in fossil fuels, or to use an investment house that invests in fossil fuels.
That’s actually quite a challenging commitment because, obviously, what we don’t want to do is jeopardise the viability and the future return on investment that the RPS might make. But equally, we have to balance that against the Society’s commitment to being responsible as an organisation. So that’s an example of where the members have told us that climate change is important and the RPS has listened accordingly, by adjusting its investment strategy.
Do you think there is sufficient transparency with the RPS finances?
My view is that the RPS should always be as open as it possibly can be. We have a turnover of about £25m, which is in the public accounts. A fifth of this total is membership contributions and a significant amount of that comes from our publishing arm.
We can only be so transparent about the latter because, although that supports and underwrites the organisation, we also have to also bear in mind the commercial sensitivities from mainstream publications, such as the BNF. We have publications of which we are immensely proud and which are used right across healthcare.
So, with my business hat on, there’s only so much that I can share publicly. But I think where we can be we are actually pretty transparent.
I sit on the finance and investment committee, and I feel that strongly that as one of the elected members on the committee, then I am there to represent our members. I’m the ambassador for our members and the representative and the voice of the members. And, even if it’s uncomfortable, and it’s challenging, I am prepared to voice concerns if need be.
There are huge economic challenges happening right now. How hard is it going to be to deal with all of these external factors?
I think the next two years are going to be incredibly challenging. The increase in the base rate of interest, the prediction of a recession through 2023, the ongoing war in Ukraine, the ‘cost of living’ crisis, and the economic fallout from COVID-19 are all outside of our control.
In pharmacy, there are challenges such as pharmacy closures, locum rates, pharmacists being paid and appropriate remuneration for the responsibility in the roles that we undertake. All of that plays into if our members believe that we are fighting for them and standing up for them. I’d like to see our membership grow because members see it as being a robust organisation that does just that. The more members we have, of course, the more revenue we get, the more we can do and the better placed we are to face those challenges ahead of us.
The RPS has already looked at its headquarters in London and took the very wise decision to rent out two floors, so that is providing revenue, because obviously now a lot more of the Society’s employees are working flexibly and from home.
The Society did have what feels like a good year in 2021, coming in ahead of budget and with the reserves in a positive. Obviously we want to keep that, but we want to grow so that its investments produce the results you want to see. But, in a recession, that’s very difficult. So we might find that the reserves become a challenge; we’ll have to look at the whole investment portfolio and look at where the future growth is going to come from for the organisation: not just in membership, but also in publishing.
RPS membership revenue did increase in 2021, but at the same time, there was a slight decrease in membership numbers. How much of a concern is that?
Any decrease in membership is of huge concern. I feel very strongly that the RPS is the professional leadership body but I would like to see it leading more.
I would like to see us working more closely with the other pharmacy organisations — the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee, the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) and other representative bodies — because in order to land some of the vision, it has to be enacted through the other bodies. The RPS cannot work in isolation.
Unity is so important to the profession and if we engage in infighting, then it just weakens us. We need to be strong, we need to have a strong voice with government, with the decision makers, across the countries. It’s really important that we are working and pulling together so that when opportunities arise for us to make progress with our fellow healthcare professionals in the multidisciplinary team, including GPs and nurses etc. — and I am thinking very much here about independent prescribing and every pharmacist being an independent prescriber — it’s important that the decision makers look at the profession and see a profession that they know can rise to that challenge.
The RPS recorded an increased surplus in 2021. How much do these increased surpluses translate into improved services for members?
We were talking about the next two years being challenging — that’s where having those funds in reserve becomes really important. Without having to look at, for example, capital: so in terms of our assets, we don’t want to be divesting. People will look at the property portfolio but I’ve always been very reluctant to divest of property, unless there is a very good reason to do so: i.e., there is a better investment for us to participate in as a result. So we’re not just divesting, but we are investing.
I don’t call it a surplus, I call it a reserve fund. And it’s something that we have, as I say, become much better at and it’s putting us in a much better position for the future.
What would you like to achieve over the next two years?
I’d like to leave the RPS in a better place financially than it is currently, primarily through membership growth. I was talking to some pharmacists recently, and we were using the summary care record and accessing patients records because of their vaccines. And I said: “The RPS actually enabled that [through] lobbying and working with government.” But they said that they never knew that — we ought to publicise that more.
Then I said: “Actually, the other great achievement of the RPS has been the GP pharmacist role.” When I first started with the RPS we didn’t have that. That was a great achievement of [former English Pharmacy Board chair] David Branford; he was really behind that and we all worked together and yes, we worked with the other organisations.
The RPS is the credentialing body for independent prescribers and I would like to see it being the assessment body as well. If I know that I’ve got to get my assessment through the RPS then of course, I’m going to become a member. That’s something that would have to be worked and agreed with the with the GPhC as the regulator, but there’s huge opportunity there.
I’ll just be in the background, making sure that all the pennies are coming into the coffers, and that the funds are not just balancing, but growing.
I’ve strayed there into policy and strategy, which as treasurer, you might say: “Hang on a minute, you’re not meant to be doing that; you’re meant to just be looking at the books.” But you’ve got to look at what’s behind the figures. And I think I think that’s one of the things I bring as treasurer: I can ask the questions. And if it’s a silly question: well, I don’t mind looking silly, if I get the right answer.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Some people say to me: RPS membership is too expensive. And I would say, have a really good think about what you mean by that, because our membership is just over £210 pounds a year, so it’s less than a pound a day.
For that, you get you get the education and training, the helpline, the support desk, the lobbying that we do, the public affairs work, the representation of the profession with other professions, and with the elected and non-elected bodies and non-governmental organisations with other royal colleges. You know, the RPS behind the scenes is very active.
The message I’d like to get out is: we actually do an awful lot for you, and the more members we have, the more we can do. Don’t just look at the money — look at it in context of everything that you’re getting.
I am very happy to hear from our members. If people have ideas and want to communicate with me, then I’m more than happy to engage.