'Guided democracy'? No thanks

Simon Hebditch is alarmed by the way some charities are promoting particular candidates in elections to their boards, and argues that there is a better way to achieve the right balance of trustees

Credit: Jason Bennion
Credit: Jason Bennion

I am normally a happy and contented member of the National Trust. My wife and I spend many a Saturday enjoying the gardens and forest walks of baronial mansions - all of which are kept open thanks to the dedication of the trust. The time for voting for members of the trust's national council came round again recently and I received the usual pack designed to enable me to choose members for the next term.

One positive aspect was the range of candidates available for the number of vacancies. Unlike many voluntary sector governance arrangements, there were about twice as many candidates as there were vacancies. This shows people have a healthy interest in working with the National Trust.

But as I opened one of the documents over my breakfast cereal, I was dismayed to find a number of the candidates had been recommended to me over the others. In the voting matrix, the favoured candidates had their names shaded to highlight them. I am afraid my response was somewhat juvenile, although in my view entirely justified. I decided I could take one of two reasonable courses of action: vote automatically for all those unfortunates whose names on the ballot remained unshaded, or simply not participate at all. I decided on the latter.

Thinking about this incident, I recalled the exciting party politics of the 1970s and 1980s, especially in the Labour Party, where candidate 'slates' were all the rage as contending ideological elements in the party fought for supremacy. I am sure the National Trust is not yet subject to that level of factionalism, but the idea of a national voluntary organisation guiding its members by proposing they vote for certain candidates over others is somewhat depressing.

I am well aware of some of the reasons put forward to justify such action. It is true that you might be asked to vote for a range of people whom you have never met or even heard of. Equally, some organisations might argue that they need to indicate whether candidates meet their requirements in terms of gender, disability or ethnicity.

But I remain unconvinced that the laudable aim of providing sufficient information to enable members to exercise their democratic vote has to be addressed through the publication of a slate of clearly preferred candidates.

The National Trust is not the only body that has gone down this route. I recently came across a publication from the RNIB that sets out its thinking on the role of a nominations committee within an organisation's governance structure. Lord Colin Low, the estimable chairman of the RNIB, explains that a nominations committee was introduced to look at candidates in the context of previous criticisms that the organisation had too few women in its assembly and a shortage of representatives from ethnic minority groups.

Low says: "The nominations committee can review the full list and make recommendations to help make the assembly more representative of the community, but it does take full account of candidates' statements, too. However, the slate is only a suggested list of candidates and all members are free to vote for anyone from the complete list."

I do not blame these individual organisations, which have the best motives in the world for taking this stance. But I believe the very laudable aim of improving governance is ill served by a system of recommended votes presented on a slate of potential candidates. The need to ensure a board or executive committee is elected that reflects the needs of the organisations can be better achieved by the presentation of clear information to the electorate. Of course, nominations committees should draw up an analysis of the current state of their organisations and make sure there are clear criteria that candidates should meet.

Such criteria could include the balance of gender on boards and, where appropriate, membership reflecting people with different disabilities. A critical look at the skills already present on boards and the gaps that can be identified by that process would allow the election procedures to indicate clearly the range of skills being sought at any particular time. You could allow nominations committees to reject applications that fail to address or meet the criteria.

All this is possible if election packs present clear information. Members are perfectly capable of assessing the merits of candidates against published criteria and should be encouraged to treat the process as more than a 'tick-box' activity. The principal reason I react against slates, from wherever they emanate, is that they represent a slippery slope towards managed or guided democracy. The in-built assumption is that the election organiser knows best who will fit the requirements of the organisation. This can lead, as the Labour Party found to its cost, to the activists rather than the members ploughing their own furrows to the detriment both of their organisations and democracy generally. Transparent information, yes. Guided voting, no.

- Simon Hebditch is an independent consultant with more than 20 years' experience in the third sector. He was chief executive of Capacitybuilders from its launch in 2006 until earlier this year.

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