How to reinvent the Aust Computer Society

Roger Clarke

During the second half of 2019, the Australian Computer Society was in uproar over a constitution that the then ACS Management Committee put forward to the membership for approval. The proposed changes provoked a revolt among senior ACS members.

The rebellion led to an ugly battle in the Federal Court over the disastrous attempt to restructure the organisation, and governance issues related to the conduct of an extraordinary general meeting.

After a painful and public battle, the court ultimately scuttled the restructure while issuing a damning assessment of the conduct of ACS officers, ordering the Society to pay the rebel’s leadership $127,000 legal costs.

The ACS Congress met last week to consider a way forward for the organisation and its constitution.

Roger Clarke was a prime mover of the ‘Rescue Your ACS‘ movement. InnovationAus invited him to provide readers an outline of the movement’s presentation to that meeting of the ACS Congress. He submitted the following as a summary of the presentation.

Roger Clarke on the ACS future

Large numbers of longstanding members of the Society have been dissatisfied with the last few years’ reductions in services to the membership. They see too much emphasis placed on commercial activities, and they believe the wrong priorities are being applied to surpluses from business operations.

These problems have led to a decline in professional membership at a time when the power of ICT is reaching a crescendo, and the country needs, more than ever before, a strongly professional approach to the application of ICT.

During late 2019 and early 2020, the ‘Rescue Your ACS’ group took the necessary steps to prevent highly inappropriate governance arrangements being approved.

Since March 2020, there has been a far greater degree of acceptance by the ACS executive of the need for a different approach. This coincided with the election of Dr Ian Oppermann as president.

During the last six months, the ‘Rescue’ group’s Steering Committee of 40 senior members, who have a great deal of experience in ACS organisational roles, has been working to achieve major improvements in governance. One working group has the Society’s constitution as its focus.

Most people understandably see governance generally as being a pretty boring topic, and the text of any constitution as a reliable cure for insomnia. On the other hand, such documents contain the specifications for the structures and processes that make up an organisation’s machinery.

Enough people need to invest enough effort into requirements analysis, conceptual design, walk-throughs, detailed design and quality assurance to ensure that the organisation is what it needs to be.

The group started by reviewing documents on the nature of professional societies, followed by the self-descriptions and governance arrangements of a broad selection of peer-organisations.

The conclusions from that phase were that the ACS’s key functions are very different from those of both commercial, for-profit corporations and industry associations; and that the appropriate form for a professional society must reflect its nature, and not simply copy standard templates.

The next step was to develop a set of principles to guide the development of a bespoke constitution.

It was concluded that one meta-principle underlies all of the others: The centrality of the professional membership. The Society is of, and for, the members, and professional members must be directly involved in the Society’s values, strategy and priorities.

A number of more specific principles derive from that one. The Constitution itself must be under members’ control. But so also must key documents concerning such things as membership levels and standards, and the policies and procedures for evaluating individuals and accrediting educational institutions.

A further need is for responsibilities, power and resources to be allocated to appropriate levels of organisation, rather than being highly-centralised. All delegations must be subject to effective transparency and accountability arrangements.

A further principle is a strong emphasis on member services. Interactions among members must be facilitated, across the society as a whole, and through both functional groupings nationally (‘communities of interest’), and regional groupings (Branches and Chapters).

Recent reductions in Branch powers and resources must be reversed. The ACS must be structured and organised to draw energy from its members throughout the nation, not just in the CBDs of the major capital cities.

Finally, the group’s focus shifted to the process whereby a new constitution could come about. To achieve a member-driven constitution, openness and participation are essential.

We had the opportunity on Friday June 19 to briefly present an outline of our analysis to the ACS’s 24-person Congress.

We argued for a taskforce to be commissioned by the Congress to put a discussion paper before the membership, stimulate engagement and debate, and iterate towards a widely-supported document that respects the principles underlying a professional society.

We very much hope that the Congress has reached a similar conclusion, and that it will drive a constructive process to reinvigorate the ACS, enthuse professionals, and serve both those professionals and the broader society.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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