MEMBERS of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) were shocked and dismayed last Thursday when they learned that following a vote by the English Pharmacy Board, Ash Soni, the incumbent President of the RPS, had lost his seat on the Assembly and as such would be unable to continue in his role as president.
Two themes emerged in the aftermath.
First, that Ash was a well-respected and progressive leader of the profession, and second that the RPS’ governance structure seems to be convoluted and imperfect.
To give a simple breakdown, members of each national board are directly elected by the society’s members. Members of each board elect representatives to the assembly, and the assembly elects a president from among their ranks. In effect, the selection of the society’s president is twice removed from the membership.
It is interesting to note that the chair of each national board (plus the vice chair of the EPB) has a guaranteed seat in the assembly, yet a sitting president does not.
I’ve seen nothing but praise for Ash’s approachability, passion, positive outlook, and the energetic manner in which he set out the vision for progressing as a profession and moving towards Royal College status. He had time for members, whether they were 1st year students or fellows of the society. There is widespread agreement that he served the profession excellently in his two years as president. So what were the reasons behind this sudden and unexpected demise of a respected figurehead?
In the end, the sitting president of a 30,000-strong body lost his position on the basis of a vote by 13 men and women from England.
The positive sentiments regarding Ash’s time as president further fuel the speculation surrounding the decision taken by members of the English Pharmacy Board which blocks his path to a third term.
As a result of the society’s structure, the influence of the Scottish and Welsh boards in choosing the president was diminished.
What is even more surprising is that it wasn’t a case of missing out on one seat: the EPB were electing five members of their cohort to sit on the assembly. This is in addition to the Chair and Vice Chair benefiting from automatic selection.
They may have had legitimate reasons for choosing five others ahead of Ash, but a membership seeking answers currently feels concerned and left in the dark.
In the wake of the decision, there have been calls for greater transparency. A statement was made on Monday explaining the procedure for choosing the president and signposting members to the society’s governance handbook. This confirms that elections to the assembly take place in open business, but are by secret ballot. This information being made available is commendable, as it helps to engage members and understand the mechanics of the decision. However we are still bereft of any rationale for cutting short the president’s time in office.
Greater transparency may prove to be an important step towards improved engagement from the Society’s members. There have been suggestions that the president should be directly elected by the members on the basis of a manifesto, rather than selected by their peers in the upper echelons of the society’s structure, who in turn find themselves chosen from a small pool of board members.
We might not know the answer of what went on in that meeting until October, or perhaps even later given minutes of the April meeting have yet to emerge online.
Given the Society is still in its infancy, we shouldn’t be too surprised that the governance structures are only now being put to the test. If there’s a positive to the events of recent days, it’s that a conversation has been triggered.
It’s only right that members (and prospective members such as myself) voice their concerns and hold board members to account for the decisions they make in the name of the professionals they represent. If there were a more open and engaging model for choosing the profession’s leader, the membership may respond with greater enthusiasm.
The fact remains that a large proportion of the profession probably couldn’t name the RPS President. Statistically, they were unlikely to have taken part in the national board elections, and they certainly play no part in elections to the Assembly or presidency.
Unfortunately the issue of who holds the presidency and how they were chosen is met with apathy by many members. Parallels could be draw here with the current political climate of the country. Throughout the Western World there are anti-establishment sentiments. Disaffected voters are sick of the experts, we’re told. It’s entirely possible that the majority of pharmacists are quite happy to get on with their day job, unmoved by the issues of leadership and accountability.
Tom Byrne is a pharmacy student at the University of Sunderland
Follow Tom @PharmTB