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How we can increase turnout to RPS board elections

Person putting vote in ballot box

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I agree with The Pharmaceutical Journal editorial of 19 June 2017 about wanting a healthier turnout in the elections. This would be a strong indicator of a thriving, engaged and member-focused organisation. We should all be continuing to make the Society the best it can be — wholly inclusive and achieving the ambitions we have for the profession.

But I do not believe the election process is at fault. Our annual elections are transparent, independently governed and have different platforms for communicating with candidates and exercising our vote.

Nor do I believe the answer lies in limiting terms of office, as suggested by some members. I believe fresh ideas and solutions are not limited to elected members but come through good intelligence, communication and engagement with the whole membership.

It is right that council members of regulatory bodies should have limited terms. However, democracy is vital for a professional leadership body that is member-led. That is a basic freedom and a choice entitled to any member organisation, and must be defended. We must trust the membership and neither patronise the members or deny them the right to vote for whoever they choose.

I believe the low overall turnout of 10.86% amid a healthy number of candidates isn’t necessarily apathy, but a symptom of the RPS’s failure to talk to membership. I have frequently asked both the assembly and the English Pharmacy Board, of which I am a member, to make the RPS conference more friendly to community pharmacists and new members. The decision to make the annual conference free to members this year is a great first step, but it would be better if members could propose motions to the boards, engage with board members and have a platform to ask questions and help set policy direction. Older members will remember the branch reps’ motions just before the Annual General Meeting which inspired debate, allowed greater networking and facilitated engagement.

The low election turnout is also a symptom of a cumulative effect of the last seven years during which local networks have been squeezed almost out of existence, special interest groups have been cast adrift. Active participation has been lacking, and professional opportunities have been missed.

Collective decisions where cost was placed over value have created a false economy that has led to the profession losing local identity. This has chased away the ability to recruit new members, retain passionate volunteers and influence local strategy. Limited local networking has further isolated community pharmacists, new registrants, retirees and locums who feel abandoned and ignored by everyone, especially the RPS.

The RPS should be outspoken, unafraid of controversy and braver about challenging outside authority. We could also change the election timetable to fit around the conference, where we could have physical and online hustings to give members more chance to ‘press the flesh’ of candidates, and in turn, be inspired to vote or even stand.

There are many more ideas to support the RPS to show a profound interest in protecting its members and being a voice to defend the profession from the harms caused by the irrational funding cuts and poor political thinking. Some are already saying the failure to enthuse the profession is down to the RPS leadership failing to ignite and inspire the membership into action. That may explain why many still don’t know the role of the RPS, why they need to be members or how the RPS impacts on their day-to-day work.

However, I would argue that the real problem is that the RPS is not internally geared to facilitate elected members to do their duty, to go out to members, fly the flag at conferences and network. We had too many non-pharmacists in key positions for too long who had no idea what makes members sad, mad and glad. Furthermore, budgets were not set the way members would have liked. Despite isolated voices of protest, collectively the elected leaders did not make the executive accountable. Reorganisations left elected members feeling even more detached.

We have already spent lots of money tinkering with the electoral and governance processes, which has proven to be futile. Only when elected reps and senior execs get their heads out of the sand, unite in agreeing that we need change to facilitate pharmacists all over the country getting their chance and their voice to give their ideas for how to make a difference, will we improve low turnouts.

As a profession we either get used to gradual erosion of our influence and poor representation, or we gear the RPS to be fit for purpose and decide to raise the role, profile or ambition of the profession.

Most of us work with relentless optimism, enthusiasm and evangelism in the hope the right system will harvest that energy into productivity on behalf of all our stakeholders and members. The wrong system saps energy, inconsistently delivers, is inefficient and not well understood.

We are at an inflexion point amid unprecedented adversity and potential opportunity and we have to makes big decisions that will affect members and a lot of stakeholders. A pity, isn’t it, that many of our members are disengaged, detached and disconnected? Is that not a good reason why many choose not to vote, rather than the voting mechanism or unlimited terms?

Suggestions for increasing turnout to RPS elections

  • Make the RPS conference more friendly to community pharmacists and new members by allowing them to propose motions to the boards, engage with board members and have a platform to ask questions and help set policy direction;
  • Empower local networks so that community pharmacists, new registrants, retirees and locums can have a voice;
  • Change the RPS election timetable to fit around annual conference, where physical and online hustings would give members more chance to ‘press the flesh’ of candidates, and in turn, be inspired to vote or even stand;
  • Elected RPS leaders to build a higher public profile, engaging with pharmacist members and raising the flag at conferences.

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2017.20203730

Readers' comments (1)

  • Well said Sid! As a fellow board member for the last 5 years, I too have felt frustrated at the lack of engagement with our members, both at the conference and locally.
    I too remember the branch reps meetings and motions - indeed that was my first Involvement with the RPSGB - and boy, was I nervous when I proposed my very first motion!
    So I agree, let's have vibrant engagement at the RPS Conference - with board members photos, names and brief biogs in the conference guide, so our members can recognise us, interact with us in the tea and lunch breaks - give us feedback and perhaps we might even mutually inspire each other! I've asked for this for 5 years now - hopefully with the new RPS regime this will become a reality.
    Likewise with local engagement - it's so important that we build networks and relationships across all sectors of our Profession - for us to share best practice and learnings. And enable Board members and staff to highlight the wonderful resources they can access from the RPS - like the foundation years and faculty, revalidation support and standards, as well as media presence and working with the decision makers to ensure pharmacy is represented at the highest level.
    Then we'll get members engaged enough to vote. Maybe even in droves! And new members too!

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