Your opinion sought: ALIA board terms

We discuss lots of interesting and exciting things at the ALIA board: the future of the profession, conferences, money. But sometimes we have to do some housekeeping, and that’s what this blog post is about.

The ALIA board is in the process of reviewing the ALIA constitution, looking for things that need to be updated or changed. One of the things that we’re discussing is the term of office for board members. The current constitution states that board members are elected for two year terms, with a maximum of two consecutive terms – a maximum of four years in one go.

There are two problems that the board is grappling with, in relation to its membership. These are that it’s (usually) difficult to attract people to stand for election, and that two years is actually a really short time to serve on the ALIA board. Let’s look at these individually.

2013 was the first year in several in which an election for the board was actually held – which means there were more candidates than there were vacant positions. In the interests of an involved and democratic organisation, I’d like to see elections held every year. I’d like to see lots of competition for this important role, and elections used to select the best candidates. There are risks when there are no elections: we all know people that have inflated views of their own talents, and if all they have to do to get on the board of ALIA is to nominate, well, that’s a little scary (please note this is not a comment on the quality of board members past or present!). It’s important for member engagement that they have a say in who represents them in running the organisation.

People will, in theory, stand for election if the role is attractive to them; they have to feel like it’s achievable, worthwhile, rewarding, and, this is important, they need their employer’s support. ALIA has various ways that they could influence each of these elements, and the term of office is one of them. A short term of office, in which one can’t achieve anything, would prevent the role from being seen as rewarding or worthwhile. A long term of office might mean that people see the role as unachievable, or it might impact the support they get from their employer. (It’s worth articulating here that being on the board requires time and flexibility from employers, and cannot in reality be conducted only in one’s personal time. Some employers might feel that this is an imposition on them. Quick shout out to my employer UNSW Library, who generously gives of my work time!) So you can see that we don’t want a term of office that is too short or too long. We need the goldilocks term.

Which brings me to the second problem. When I took my seat on the board I was coming from a long history of active ALIA involvement. I’d run a group, I’d convened a conference, I’d sat on an advisory committee, I’d even worked for ALIA. One could saythat I was at somewhat of an advantage; yet still the volume of information that I’ve had to take in about every single aspect of the organisation is massive, and I still feel very wet behind the ears. Imagine how much harder it is for someone coming in with less ALIA experience than I had. Feedback from other board members, past and present, is that it took them at least a year to get a proper understanding of the role.

If you spend your first year figuring out what you’re meant to be doing, you’ve only got one year left to actually do any of it. That’s not a lot of time when you’re operating on a strategic level in an organisation, when you’re working on projects that typically take three or more years to play out. It means that we don’t get the satisfaction of seeing the project finished; it also means we’re not held accountable if it goes awry.

Which brings me to the question we’re debating: is two years the right length? We’re basically having a debate comparing two, three and four years. Two years is short, but maybe too short. Four years is long; IMHO, too long, and I would not have volunteered for a four year term, and I wouldn’t do so now that I know how much work is involved! Three years might be a nice length, but it’s complicated to administer – and some people might see it as too long as well.

At the last board meeting we talked about this for some time, and came to the conclusion that we really should find out more about what members think on this – not the least because those in the room are not a representative selection of members, given that we have volunteered for the board. Hence this blog post. I’m seeking your opinion. Please tell me what you think about this. Do you think three or four year terms are too long? Would a longer term encourage you towards nominating for the board in the future, or put you off? You can use the comments section, or you can email me at alysondalby at gmail dot com, or even on Twitter at @alysondalby.

(In case you’re interested in how this actually works, this is not a formal consultation process, rather an informal information gathering. The board will use this to put together a proposed change to the constitution, which then gets voted on by the membership. But we can’t have a vote on three options – we can propose a change, on which members can vote yes or no. Hence we are trying to figure out what that change, if any, should be. If, by the way, you feel we should leave it at two years, please say so – don’t assume that a lack of feedback will encourage the status quo!)

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2 responses to “Your opinion sought: ALIA board terms”

  1. Hugh Rundle says :

    This is, of course, a problem which vexes Parliaments as well! There’s another aspect which you haven’t really discussed, which centres around the ability of ALIA members to decide whether they want board members to continue (i.e. if we think you’re doing a lousy job, how long until we get to vote you out). In the context of uncontested elections this might seem like an esoteric thing to worry about, but I too would prefer to see contested elections, and a strong and democratic Association.

    So the tension here is not just ‘how long does it take for a board member to achieve something lasting’ but also ‘how long is a reasonable time before board members have to face an election?’

    From what you’re saying, it sounds like you’re thinking three years might be the right number, but I’m not convinced. Two years gives members enough time to determine whether you’re doing the job they want (if they’re paying attention) and allows them to make a decision about that at an election. Two years also gives you enough time to work out whether being on the Board is indeed something you want to do. If it is, you have the opportunity to run again making it four years in total and plenty of time to achieve great things. If not, well, its only two years. I think the idea of committing to any more than two years is likely to reduce the number of nominees, not increase it.

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