Volunteers and Democratic Deficits

My favourite bit of Scrooged is when Bill Murray is told that the people working in a homeless shelter cannot be fired because they are volunteers. It appears that the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries (IFoA) is instead in danger of morphing into such a sleek, streamlined, efficient, simplified and clarified organisation that noone would want to volunteer for it any more.

The long-running argument about the future governance of the IFoA grinds on. Four months after a small number of members alerted the rest of us to what was going on, and 194 members then objected in writing, the IFoA have now concluded a series of webinars explaining the proposals. I attended the final one on 28 November.

In a nutshell, the proposals are unchanged from those objected to, they are now being considered alongside the objections by the newly elected Council this month, which will be followed by a full consultation in January. The new governance structure will then be rolled out in the summer of 2024 and a member vote only allowed on the new structure two years later in 2026. Yes that’s right, not a typo: 2026!

The session I attended was all about how we needed to be more streamlined, more efficient, more credible in our governance. We needed to simplify our governance, clarify it. The recent embarrassments about outgoing CEOs was cited as an example of our poor governance without explanation. The independent report which they quoted from throughout to justify the proposals will not be provided to members as it includes contributions from people who only did so on the basis of anonymity.

There was a discussion about how the IFoA was both a business and a member organisation. But, in mentioning more than once how the proposals were only what any of the organisations members worked for would expect from their governance, the weighting given to these two roles was very clear. These were senior business leaders attempting to make the IFoA look more like the businesses they are more used to.

If you’re a senior business leader, then an organisation where any member can have some influence on its direction of travel must be incomprehensible. They are used to leading and being followed. Much was made of the waste of time that much Council business involved, and I am sure that is right. But that is just a motivation for change, as indeed was the entire presentation on 28 November. It was decidedly not a motivation for this change in particular.

We were told that other options had been considered, although bundling everything up into one board that did everything was the only one mentioned.

One of the other reasons given for the changes proposed was how much bigger the IFoA was now. Coincidentally, on 27 November, the Economic Affairs Committee of the House of Lords published its report ‘Making an independent Bank of England work better’. In it they made the following point:

The growth in the Bank’s remit has not been met with a commensurate increase in accountability and Parliamentary scrutiny. While an independent central bank reassures markets, critically important economic decisions are delegated to unelected officials. The Committee is concerned that a democratic deficit has emerged, which risks undermining confidence in the Bank and its operational independence.

We are being asked to quietly acquiesce to the creation of precisely this kind of democratic deficit in our own member organisation. Because, despite suggestions to the contrary in the webinar, we are primarily a member organisation and not like the organisations we all work for, something we have just been reminded of by being charged £750 for the privilege.

If we agree to this timetable, then by the time we get to 2026 I predict we will be assured that it would not be cost effective or a good use of the new unitary board’s time to uproot what will by then be the incumbent system. This would be giving these proposals an unfair advantage in deciding on the long-term governance of the IFoA.

My requests would be:

  1. Some summarised form of the independent report which protects people’s anonymity but allows us members to judge for ourselves the relative strengths and weaknesses of the analysis of our current governance and the options so far considered for change.
  2. An opportunity for a member vote on the structure adopted in 2024 alongside the consultation, rather than 2 years post adoption.

It is precisely at the stage of deciding that structure that all of the range of experience, talent and wisdom of the membership needs to be deployed, not at the point of rubber stamping a decision already made. If you agree with me that members are being sidelined in the decision-making process about the very nature of the IFoA’s future, then please send your feedback to governance@actuaries.org.uk.

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