Monday, January 14, 2008

Buzzwords: "Council Empowerment"

This post is by Spencer Keys, the AMS President of 05/06. We thank him for his participation. I will be blogging more about the basics of both committee reform and the Strategic Framework later in the week for the new readers out there.

Maayan has politely asked me on a number of occasions to write a guest post for UBC Insiders and while I have normally been content to make snarky comments or longwinded rants when something interesting pops onto my RSS feed, there are two topics that still interest me a great deal and need to be continually reinforced as important; the first is keeping slates out of the AMS (a topic that others are perfectly well equipped to argue but occasionally needs some context from somebody who worked in a slate system) and the second is what I call the “Modernization Project.” Brendan already spoke about a component of this project to modernize the way the AMS is run (portfolio reform) and I would like to talk a bit about a topic that has popped up in the comments section – council empowerment.
(More behind the jump)

The History:
“Council empowerment” has been an issue for as long as I can remember but the nature
of the debate has substantially shifted between the slate-period and the independentperiod. In the past advocates of more Council power were largely doing so in reaction to perceived abuses by the Executive; those advocates were almost entirely composed of people that had run in opposing slates in the previous election or were allied with them. As a former loser I was a vocal member of this group.

Then two things happened. The attempted firing of AMS General Manager Bernie Peets created a consensus that Council should be more active in oversight and the activities of the society, rather than a rubber stamp body. That was followed a month later by the first election without slates, resulting in the first Council in decades without clear party lines dividing the Executive and the Constituency representatives. Council empowerment was no longer something to fear as a witch-hunt in disguise (as it admittedly was when there were slates) but an opportunity to achieve a number of positive organizational goals – Council could now be a training ground for future executives, the forum for long-term goal-setting (preventing lost momentum from executive turnover), and a place of real oversight and review, no longer assumed to be partisan maneuvering.

The Proposals:
In our first year we played around with a lot of ideas – some were adopted, some were rejected, and others were integrated into our long-term recommendations for the future. The AMS Lobby Day is one project that went forward because it was felt that giving councillors meaningful insight into what the Executive does when it lobbies would be good for a host of issues. Having a non-Executive councillor sit on the Executive Committee in an oversight capacity was one we rejected, largely because those meetings happen too frequently and at inconvenient times for a councillor that may have a summer job. However, two long-term projects were to form the basis of future devolution of power: the Strategic Framework and Committee Reform.

The Strategic Framework empowers Council by giving it a standard to measure the activity of the Executive. Specifically it maps four areas – long-term resource planning, creating community at UBC, establishing a transparent and responsive system of governance in the AMS, and engaging constituents (ie. students) in the decisions of the AMS. This means that Council neither has to reinvent the wheel every year and figure out what the AMS should focus on, or have to look to the Executive for leadership on long-term goals.

The committee system was going to be the way to empower Council to act without needing the Executive to lead it by the nose. Without getting into all of the details the idea is as follows: 1) where a given Executive clearly has responsibility for a subject, disband the committee and create an Executive Working Group that reports to that Executive (Safety Committee, Impacts (Sustainability) Committee, Campus Planning and Development Committee), 2) Council has corporate responsibilities as a board of directors so Committees of Council should focus on those responsibilities as well as the long-term goals outlined in the Strategic Plan, 3) Council members should be committee chairs instead of Executives (who will still be busy with their Working Groups), and 4) the entire system should be coordinated through an Agenda Committee that makes sure the committees are working and advises the President on the Council agenda.

It’s an ambitious project, to say the least. While it has been in development for over three years, there are still things to show for the effort, such as the new Oversight Committee. The benefits could be substantial when the project is fully realized – work being done on long-term projects, committee chairs that can be leaders in Council and be groomed for future Executive work, an Executive that is not overburdened with committee administrative work, and a committee system that Councillors feel is valuable and worth their effort, which could lead to them speaking positively about the AMS to others.

Thoughts About the Future:
When today’s candidates speak of council empowerment, is this what they’re talking about? Not all of them, certainly. Some have told me specifically that they think Executive power should stay centralized. And I’m sure that committee reform is not the only way to continue the implementation of the Modernization Project. However, I think the values that exist within the proposal are vital to the development of an effective, professional Council. Council is not empowered by giving them supreme authority, nor are they empowered by preventing them from guiding the agenda. A balance has to be struck where they are given a clear mandate to work on important issues for the AMS and students, and also the support to bring that work to completion. I fear that in some senses the pendulum has swung too far the other way and Council has moved from a role of knee-jerk opposition to one of no discernable role whatsoever. Are they just there to be a sounding board for the Executive or something more? That’s the question at the heart of a phrase like “council empowerment.” A clear path has been set for how to achieve that balance but the AMS has been moving down it very slowly. The words of my dear dad ring true in my head, “Shit or get off the pot.” While former AMS Frosh President Kim
Campbell said an election is no time to debate policy, I disagree. Thoughts?