Simon Lee offers an alternative perspective on the recent 2019 British Mountaineering Council AGM.
In February I wrote an article for the March edition of the BMC Peak Area newsletter called "Whither the BMC" which was kindly reproduced by UKC on 19 March 2019. The purpose of that article was to take stock of where our national body is currently, and the direction in which it may be heading in the run up to the BMC AGM on the 31st March. Alongside 100 other BMC members I attended the 2019 AGM at the Devonshire Dome in Buxton. Afterwards Rob Greenwood, BMC Peak Area Chair, asked if I would write a follow up article for UKC. We both felt that an alternative account was in order as whilst the official write up of the AGM is titled "Positivity and Change" this didn't reflect everyone's take on all the proceedings and results.
Over the last eight years I have gained a few different perspectives on the organisation. First, I was an attendee of Peak Area meetings. I then became one of the Area's National Council Representatives involved in policy making. Then, from January 2017 until June 2018 I was employed by the BMC Office as Commercial Manager looking at new ways to make or save money for the BMC against a background of declining grant money from Sport England.
Subscription (subs) rise
First on most people's agenda (but last on the actual AGM agenda) was the recommended subs rise.
In the January 2019 BMC Board meeting there was a recommendation that subs should be: "increased by £2.50 (individual members) and £1.00 (club members)" and this was to be put to the vote at the BMC AGM due to an anticipated £40-60K uplift in members liability insurance following a substantial claim from an accident.
However, further financial analysis led this recommendation to be increased to £6.00 for both individual and club members. This is a substantial rise and comes hot on the heels of a rise in 2018 of £2.50 for individual members and £1.50 for club members.
A subs change requires a majority vote at an AGM and the recommendation was supported by an extensive justification document written by Dave Turnbull, Chief Executive citing the claim as the prime reason. Although it is stated that the claim was only made at the end of December 2018, the accident occurred 12 months earlier in December 2017 and was common knowledge due to an article published early 2018 stating that it happened on a weekly club meeting at a wall.
Subscription rises are typically contentious at an AGM. However, questioning from the floor was wholly civil, measured and factual and a representative from the insurers was on hand to field questions. The final vote was 71% in favour of the rise.
In 2018 adult BMC club membership was £14.25 versus £33.95 for individual membership. Club members get largely the same benefits* as individual members but at a substantially cheaper price and the Clubs themselves get substantial support from the BMC in all manner of ways, from loans for club hut improvements to advice on GDPR requirements. Arguably they get a very good deal compared to individual members. However, the £6 increase means club membership rises from £14.25 to £20.25, which is a 42% increase. There are many dissatisfied club members who resent their de facto BMC membership so it remains to be seen if any clubs move to disaffiliate in protest at the additional cost.
Personally I don't begrudge paying an extra £6 a year, but I do begrudge money being wasted. I would be wholly supportive of the subs increase if I thought that the BMC had an iron grip on its finances and placed the use of (members') money as a greater priority than it currently seems to be. The fact that the accounts were restated due to numerous narrative errors and the subscription recommendation was repeatedly changed in the run up to the AGM are just two clues that financial management could be greatly improved.
Whilst employed at the BMC as Commercial Manager I presented a number of opportunities to make or save money at the BMC that were turned down, ignored or deferred due to a lack of political will at the top to argue the case for them and make the required tough decisions. In my opinion, all options should be thoroughly explored first before going cap in hand to the Membership for another subscription rise.
On a more positive note we have a new (volunteer) Director with Finance as their specialism (Huw Jones). Also, David Lanceley from the Finance Committee is getting stuck into overhauling the budgetary process and is preparing a wider initial report on the BMC's finances aligned to strategy which is to be reviewed in May.
I hope we can see some improvements to the BMC's Financial Management and perhaps elevate the importance of Finance within the organisation. It would have been even better if a full time Finance Director had been appointed as originally recommended by the Organisational Review Group (ORG), but that option was overturned - wrongly in my opinion.
Article of Association Changes
The main article amendments to align the BMC with Sport England governance requirements were made at 2018 AGM. The amendments that were recommended at the 2019 AGM, whilst numerous, were refinements and caused little questioning or debate at the AGM. The fact it went so quietly probably reflects the diligence orchestrated behind the scenes by the Organisational Development Group otherwise known as the ODG (more on which later).
However, Turnbull commented that the current set of articles are regarded by Sport England as "very complicated" compared to other Sporting NGB's. "Complicated" sounds like code for cumbersome, unmanageable and/or unworkable. I anticipate seeing ongoing tinkering for several more AGMs as unanticipated consequences of a complicated constitution keep emerging from the woodwork.
Election of Directors
Ultimate authority (and accountability) now lies with the BMC Board of Directors, so recruiting a talented, capable Board is more vital than ever.
The election of BMC Directors has been problematic in recent history. In December 2017 one of the current Independent Directors (Amanda Parshall) had been announced as having joined the Board. It was then pointed out that this was unconstitutional. Her appointment was rescinded and put to the vote at the June 2018 AGM. I assume this is the situation that Simon McCalla, Senior Independent Director, had in mind when in the January 2019 Board minutes he was recorded as saying with respect to the upcoming wave of Director appointments: "Given recent experiences (Simon McCalla) stressed the importance of adhering to the letter of constitution and correct procedure in relation to the appointments." It was a point well made, but it seems not entirely heeded. Whilst constitutional rules were not broken, the recruitment process that took place looks to have been ad hoc rather than following a predefined and documented procedure correctly.
At the 2019 AGM there were 5 vacant posts out of a total 12 Board positions up for grabs. Three of these posts were contested.
One of the candidates (Gron Davies, Finance) asked me to be his referee and I was happy to do so having known him for 25 years. However, I was surprised that no one contacted me to validate that I was prepared to act as a referee or request a written reference. When the AGM papers were published I was surprise to see myself publicly named as 'seconding' Davies' nomination. This is a significantly different proposition and procedural process to privately providing a reference suggesting at best poor communication or perhaps a change in the process.
The 2019 AGM was Chaired by Lynn Robinson, BMC President. She is also a member of the Nominations Committee. When we reached the contested Director elections Robinson declared that in the interests of fairness that candidates would not be addressing the audience i.e. there would be no hustings. Unsurprisingly, this was met by some protests from the floor as at previous AGM's candidates were expected to speak and there was nothing in the AGM papers to indicate a change in this practice. In response, Robinson backtracked and asked the candidates to do a short presentation despite the BMC's paid legal adviser counselling otherwise.
I am agnostic as to whether making a presentation to the AGM audience after member votes have already been cast by proxy is fair, good governance, good practice or otherwise. However, if there is a new procedure then it should have been communicated beforehand and then adhered to. Putting candidates on the spot to sell themselves when they have not been asked to prepare a presentation is definitely unfair. To their credit, two of the candidates refused to make presentations on these grounds which in itself may have prejudiced their chances.
The most controversial election was for the contested post of Director; Funding.
John Roberts was by far the most experienced of the three candidates and I was shocked when the votes were announced stating he had come last. How this came to pass has shone a spotlight not just on the recruitment rules and processes, but also on the use of discretionary proxy votes that are carried by the Chair and (typically) BMC Club luminaries.
Why discretional proxy voting is a risk to democracy
Proxy voting means being able to be absent from a meeting and still lodge a vote. There are directed proxy votes where you select your vote on each motion and discretionary proxy voting where you nominate an individual to use their discretion to vote on your behalf.
The proxy votes came in via post with the completed voting forms that were included with the Spring edition of Summit or electronically via the new system run independently by the Electoral Registry Service. In either case an individual can vote directly for the motions or by default nominate the Chair to use their discretion unless another nominated representative is chosen to act on their behalf.
Currently members only get to see the overall vote count and not how many came from discretionary proxy votes. However, this is not always the case. At the 2018 AGM the acting President Nick Kurth made it a matter of public record how he used his discretionary vote in the Presidential election (he split it 50:50).
Although the 2019 numbers have not been made available, you can look across the distribution of overall votes between the five elections to make comparisons on which to base assumptions. Personally I would like to have the guesswork taken out so that it is transparent as to what level of power nominated individuals wield in determining the outcomes.
My overall concern is that a nominated individual may have so many discretionary votes that they have too much discretionary power, especially in the election of Directors and even more so if they are a member of the Nominations Committee.
The former bloc vote of the Trade Unions in the Labour Party is often cited as an example of the negative consequences of this sort of thing. In the case of the BMC it might be that by dint of their discretionary votes that the Chair of the meeting or a Club luminary harvesting proxies might be in position to have an unwelcome individual level of power. Currently it is unclear as to what extent this is the case.
I think that structural review of the rules and disclosure of discretional proxy voting is in order. In addition, a more proactive approach to encouraging a greater proportion of the electorate to use their votes would be both democratically healthy and reduce the power of those bloc voting using discretionary proxies - assuming it is permitted in the future.
Open and transparent if it suits?
After the AGM I made requests to the BMC Office and the President to disclose the numbers of discretionary proxy votes that were applied at the AGM for each item and specifically the number of votes deployed by the Chair. So far that request has been refused.
It doesn't seem right to me that an organisation (and individual) who claims to aspire to be open and transparent withholds this information. I appreciate that certain information is inherently confidential (i.e. staff salaries, commercial contracts) but nothing I have heard so far convinces me that this is the case with the disclosure of the number of discretionary proxy votes applied by the Chair and others. I'm not requesting how they voted, useful though that would be.
What does the result of the Director Funding vote mean?
Lack of disclosure notwithstanding, it seems almost certain that Roberts came last because he did not garner the support of the Chair and other individuals holding the largest number of discretionary votes. Those that hold discretionary votes are establishment figures and informed BMC insiders (the Wise, the Great and the Good!) who knew very well Robert's track record as a dedicated and talented moderniser both in his position as ODG Chair and previously as a key member of the ORG. Furthermore, he was already on the Board as Vice President for the previous ten months stepping down immediately prior to the 2019 AGM due to technical constitutional amendments. As Roberts was effectively standing again to re-join the Board, I am surprised that no allowances were made in recognition of that unusual situation to accommodate him.
Given Roberts' proven track record why on earth did some, or most, of these knowledgeable people holding discretionary votes not vote for him? Was it a protest vote against modernisation and the work of the ODG or personal antipathy? Either would be negative motives and contrary to putting the best interests of the BMC first.
In terms of the rules, it is also a concern that the Chair (who is likely to be the holder of the largest number of discretionary proxies) is also on the Nominations Committee. This dual responsibility creates a situation where one person is very influential not only in who and how many people are put forward for each vacant post, but also in influencing which specialisms are most important and furthermore has a potential deciding vote at the AGM. Therefore, a President could use their position to game the system by diluting the chances of unfavoured candidates by allowing more candidates to 'clear the bar' and thereby increase the power of their discretionary proxy vote, thus engineering situations towards populating the board with personally favoured candidates.
Knowing Robinson I do not want to believe this is what happened, but without a clear and public account of her actions it remains a possible and reasonable interpretation of what happened based on the facts currently available; I overheard someone else describe the result as "a stitch-up".
In addition to these reservations Andy Syme (Articles of Association architect) adds the following more general point on UKBouldering:
"I must admit that after the votes it was immediately clear to me that an unintended consequence of the current articles is that any Board member with discretionary votes is actually a potential governance issue as the majority of AGM business is related to Board accountability. If the Board Members have discretionary votes, albeit given and exercised in good faith, there is the potential risk. Safe to say it's on my list of things to review with the Board and (National Council) for next year's (final I hope) revision of the articles."
Finally I took the opportunity to contact Gron Davies who also lost out in a contested Director election and asked for his take on the recruitment and election process. This is what he had to say:
"My experience of putting myself forward as a candidate for the post of Director, Finance was not of the professional standard I would have expected in comparison to my past experience of being appointed a Director of public companies. The communication about the process was particularly poor. I was asked to provide two referees and provided Simon and Rehan Siddiqui having first cleared it with them. At no point was it made clear to me, or them, that in fact a proposer and seconder was required. Furthermore, when I was informed that I had been successful after interview it was not explained that it was a contested election. I only found out because Simon and Rehan told me.
In a public company a single candidate is nominated by the Nominations Committee and that is then ratified by vote at an AGM. I suggest that this process of single nominations is one that should be considered by the BMC going forward. I am similarly concerned by the lack of transparency about the discretionary voting.
As a member of the Finance Committee, my primary motivation to join the Board was to properly understand the financial workings of the BMC as the information provided to me whilst on the BMC Finance and Audit Committee was not clear and insightful, which I found frustrating.
My experience has left me with a poor opinion of the current workings of the BMC and led me to tender my resignation from the Finance and Audit Committee the day after the AGM."
Is the ODG going nowhere slowly?
The vehicle for modernising the BMC is the Organisational Development Group (ODG) which was formed after the 2018 AGM to deliver or address the 51 recommendations made in the Organisational Review Group report. The report was based on an extensive polling and questioning of the membership and allied organisations and was given overwhelming support by the Membership at the 2018 AGM on the votes to change the articles and the motion to follow the spirit of the ORG report.
There was scarcely any ODG discussion at the AGM, which hopefully does not reflect it diminishing in importance. However, there was a handout listing all 51 of the ORG recommendations. Disappointingly only 7 of those 51 recommendations had been ticked as completed. Furthermore 5 of the 7 had already been completed by the 2018 AGM. Therefore, on the face of it, not much has been achieved by the ODG since its inception. The much discussed "Memorandum of Understanding" whilst not an ORG recommendation, occupied much ODG time and could have been a completed result if it had been signed off at the AGM as intended, but it seems to have been forgotten.
A Greek tragedy in the making?
I appreciate the difficulties faced by John Roberts, the ODG Chair and other capable ODG volunteers who have worked hard, but so far largely ineffectually, over the last 10 months. The culture and workings of the BMC makes getting anything substantive done a heroic and protracted endeavour.
The ODG is undoubtedly a complicated project – so complicated in fact that a salaried Project Manager has been employed to help. Roberts certainly has the passion and attention to detail for the job. However, his immediate reports managing the two halves of the sub groups (Robinson and Turnbull) may have slowed things down.
With Roberts coming last of three in the contested Director election it was clear to all that Robinson did not use the discretionary votes at her fingertips to vote for him, thereby undermining his position as ODG Chair. Lacking the support of the President who is also a key figure managing four of the eight work streams within the ODG, it's not a surprise that he resigned as ODG Chair on the 10th April.
To quote Syme again on UKBouldering after the AGM and just prior to Robert's announcing his resignation:
"ODG really worries me at the moment as JR's (John Roberts') continued leadership is at risk and I haven't seen anyone else with the understanding, desire and drive to deliver the ORG aligned ODG that people voted for in 2018. Let's hope someone is willing / able to take that mantle if necessary. Finally I will say that JR not being on the Board is a real loss to the BMC. He might come across as a pain in the arse to some people at some times, me included, but after 18 months of regular discussion and argument his intent and rational[e] were always very much focused on doing and delivering the right thing for the members. Losing him will [have] weakened the Board until one of the other Directors takes on that role."
With Roberts having resigned, that leaves Robinson and Turnbull in charge of the ODG workstreams until a new Chair is appointed. Whilst Robinson has shown herself to be an outstanding President at the Public Relations and ambassadorial elements of her role, she appears to have been less adept and enthusiastic with respect to the nitty gritty detailed ODG work of governance and policy changes. Similarly, Turnbull who has been in the CEO role for 17 years and describes himself as a 'humble bureaucrat' is not an obvious agent of change. Therefore, I share Syme's worries about the ODG, and more...
I think it would be an impressively brave and humble move (rather than a weakness) if Robinson acknowledged her strengths and shortcomings by making way for someone else to manage her half of the ODG workstreams. This would allow Robinson to concentrate on her real strengths as a superb ambassador for the BMC. Given that she has already voiced that the workload of the role of President is too big for one person this also seems a practical step in making the workload more manageable.
A short note on Governance
Getting the BMC to conform to governance best practice is a major culture change. Good governance is not a superficial box ticking exercise to get Sport England off our backs – it is the 'how' to do things properly that should suffuse all aspects of decision making as befits a large and influential national body as the BMC has now become. Good governance should help an organisation rather than hinder it. We should aspire to have a well-functioning BMC capable of taking and implementing decisions rather than a dysfunctional one incapable of reforming itself.
What power do you have as an 'ordinary' BMC member?
The answer is quite a lot.
Wider membership engagement in BMC issues has been sporadic. Despite the introduction and ease of online voting for the 2019 AGM, disappointingly only 2,200 members out of 85,000 voted on the 2019 AGM motions. Nearly three times that number voted at the 2018 AGM stimulated by far more coverage from BMC media and communications in order to secure the Articles changes to comply with Sport England governance requirements.
At the 2018 AGM 6,222 voted for John Roberts' motion that the BMC "should implement organisational change in line with the spirit of the Organisation Review Group (ORG)" If you are one of those 6,222 you might have been assuming that this was all happening in the background. However, if you have got this far in the article it should be clear that progress is slow and faltering in terms of implementing those changes in the spirit of the ORG recommendations.
I believe that continued member pressure for modernisation on National Council and the Board is now vital to sustain momentum and furthermore will positively spur on and encourage the ORG volunteers.
At the BMC 'ordinary' members are listened to. The organisation is primarily a membership organisation. If you have concerns you can raise them as agenda items at your Local Area meeting and escalate concerns to National Council. You can also contact the ODG@thebmc.co.uk with concerns or even Dave Turnbull, the CEO, directly.
Listening is of course one thing and acting on it another. If you are unhappy with the organisational response, then 0.5% of members have the power to directly submit motions at AGMs or force a (Extraordinary) General Meeting. Full details are in the Articles of Association on page 16 (Clause 11). Both avenues represent an absolute last resort that should only be exercised if the matter has substance and is important and all other routes have failed as organising a General Meeting or submitting such items as 'Motions of Censure' are very public actions that are time consuming, expensive and can cause consequential reputation damage for the BMC.
I look at the BMC now and cannot immediately see where the impetus and leadership to continue driving modernisation is going to come from. Hope now rests with the reconstituted and re-energised Board with its five new members. Individually and collectively will they step up to the plate to ensure that modernisation isn't derailed or bogged down in traditional BMC style?
With that in mind I emailed a few of the new Board members asking them what - in their view - they felt were the main challenges to the BMC at this time and what they hoped to achieve during their time in office.
Thank you, Fiona Saunders and Jonathan White, for your responses which are reproduced below:
"I'm joining the Board having been heavily involved in the ORG, and then ODG, so feel like I understand the challenges and direction the members want the BMC to go in. As a Council Nominated Director, alongside Roger Fanner and Will Kilner, I've been appointed by the National Council as one of their three representatives on the Board.
In my role, I'm particularly keen to make sure that the members' voice is heard at Board level, and provide support and challenge to the Board, and President. I want to help shape the decisions that will take the BMC forward in the best interest of the members, and in line with the spirit of the ORG.
Gareth as our new Chair is making a positive impact already, and we have a strategy day set up for the end of May to help focus our minds on the BMC priorities for the coming years. The outputs from this can then be shared again with members to help us work in partnership through the strategy development process.
The other focus has to turn to culture, leadership and management which was a key strand of the ORG and ODG work. We must ensure we drive a culture of transparency so that members can see the impact of the work we're doing and hold us to account for anything we're not doing well. I want to ensure staff understand the direction of the BMC and can work to the agreed objectives of the organisation. I also want to ensure volunteers are supported more effectively so that wherever the BMC comes into contact with our members and wider public we are clear about what we are doing and how we do it.
Change cannot happen overnight, but the BMC has a great mandate and blueprint for progress, and I want to make sure we're doing the best we can for all members, and climbers, hillwalkers and mountaineers."
The main challenge that I see is to get past the recent difficult years so we can address the opportunities and challenges of the future positively, efficiently and proactively. Some aspects that I hope to help with are:
Re-establishing trust between 'the organisation' and its Members. We need to be demonstrably trustworthy: confidential where needed, but otherwise as open, inclusive and collaborative as possible. If the Board just does the minimum under company law, then we won't meet the wider legitimate expectations of our members. I have a strong interest in our policies – both the 'business-type' for running the organisation responsibly, and the 'ethics-type' that underpin the ethos of mountaineering.
The new BMC structure needs to settle in. Roles and responsibilities have changed, and we need processes and procedures that clarify the new ways of working. This will give everyone clear parameters and empowerment; we must improve on the previous transition from Management Committee to National Council. To get an ultimate benefit from all the recent upheaval, we must also implement the remaining Organisational Review recommendations.
Organisational 'security' remains a focus. The subs rise just voted through covers the immediate financial future, but risks remain so we need plans for dealing with these. Beyond finances, I'm an advocate of the 'broad church' of our diverse sport, but also recognise the difficulty of trying to be all things to all people. To serve and represent mountaineers effectively, we may need to reconsider what we offer: one size probably doesn't fit all.
It is important to ensure that the clubs' perspectives are considered at the Board. Removing the 'block vote' some years ago was appropriate, but it left a void where structured engagement used to take place. The Clubs Committee has some excellent proposals that reflect clubs' diversity, and a structure to boost engagement and representation. I'm looking forward to helping finalise and implement that.
Climate change is currently a hot topic. As mountaineers, we face the dilemma that the places that attract us (and the planet as a whole) are jeopardised by the very acts of visiting them, yet not visiting them loses us the participative benefits, and undermines the mountain communities that depend on us. 'Sustainable development' is roughly defined as meeting the needs of the current generation without compromising the needs of future generations. Perhaps we need to shift to a 'sustainable mountaineering' equivalent?
*To my knowledge club members share the same benefits as individual members except they don't get a BMC membership card, only get the Spring edition of Summit magazine (without the handbook) and don't receive the £10k cover for personal accident insurance which is a bolt-on policy and should not to be confused with the more substantial combined liability insurance with its £15m cover which all members benefit from. A club member upgrade is available to bring the benefits in line with that of individual members at a cost of £15.20pa but I'm led to believe that scarcely anyone upgrades.