Two and a half cheers for democracy

19 Feb

This is a guest post by Rachel Savage, Deputy for Sukkat Shalom Reform Synagogue.

As the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council move slowly towards a potential merger, it is natural to compare the two. One of the strengths of the Board, identified by its supporters, is that it is democratically elected and therefore somehow ‘better’ than the JLC. But what does it mean to be a democratic organisation? Is the Board using its democratic strengths to its full advantage? What else could democracy look like?

It’s easy to recognise the Board as a democratic organisation. In the Board’s own mission statement, it describes itself as “the community’s democratically elected cross-communal organisation”. But the term means something different to everyone and this confusion is at the heart of many concerns expressed about the Board and its effectiveness.

At one extreme is the current state of democracy on the Board. Deputies, members of Divisional boards and Honorary Officers (HOs) are elected. But many Deputies are elected by their constituencies in uncontested elections, and HOs and members of Divisions are elected by Deputies. Board plenary meetings are a talking shop; genuine votes are rare. When they do occur, they are more likely to be about procedural matters (Should meetings be streamed on the internet? How many Deputies should be required to bring a matter to the full Board for consideration?) than matters of Board policy. I have frequently heard that “the real work of the Board is done in the Divisions”. But I have also heard from frustrated Division members who find that the reports to the full Board on their Division’s activities fail to reflect what happens in Divisional meetings.

On the other extreme is the view that the Board should vote on “everything”. “Everything” is normally defined by the person expressing this view as “everything I personally disagree with”, whether that’s engaging in a joint project with a major NGO or paying a severance package to a departing member of Board staff. On the one hand, this view is absurd: plenary meetings would be even lengthier and more boring if every time the Board wanted to change paper cup supplier for refreshments served in their offices required scrutiny by all Deputies. On the other hand, if enough “I”s disagree with a particular Board decision, then surely those are the sorts of decisions that should be put to the vote due to their controversial status. Whilst this line of reasoning is appealing, it needs to be answered firmly by clear governance arrangements. It is tempting to allow Deputies to scrutinise the Board’s functions. But it’s a recipe for chaos to allow an unwieldy group of lay people to overturn the professional judgements of Board staff and the elected members of the Executive Committee taking decisions in matters properly delegated to them.

So what is the alternative? As a straw man, consider a Board with clear lines of governance. Deputies vote on the broad policies that the Board must follow and hold the staff and HOs to account in the way they implement that policy. The Executive Committee, whose members are the legally responsible trustees of the Board, takes decisions about allocation of resources and ensures the staff are carrying out work that reflects the agreed policies. The professional staff, assuming they are acting in line with those policies and the resource decisions of the Executive, are generally left to make professional judgements and get on with their work. I’m not sure what the role of the Divisions would be in this structure, but I’d welcome suggestions.

The Board’s democratic nature could be its strength, but only if we all agree about what decisions should be subject to democratic processes and what those processes should be.

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2 Responses to “Two and a half cheers for democracy”

  1. Robert Stone February 20, 2014 at 7:25 pm #

    Very clear, Rachel, and I agree with much of what you say at the end, though it may be as hard to define what a Board ‘policy’ is as what ‘everything’ is!

    It is not the Executive but only the Honorary Officers who are ‘the legally responsible trustees of the Board’. That is one reason why I agree with the many people who in responding to the Organisation Consultation Paper supported the suggestion that we should get real,recognise the central role of the HOs and find better ways to make them more responsive and accountable to the Deputies.

    • Rachel Savage February 21, 2014 at 11:58 am #

      As a member of the consitution committee, I should have known that about the trustees (or at least looked it up!).

      I think the question of what is a policy would be clearer if it was clearer what the Board is “for”, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.

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