Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Collective responsibility

I was a social worker, social care manager and social care planner for some 13 years and then worked for a district council. I did a lot of partnership working and was used to people having a go at me because of some decision or other. I understood the frustration that many people felt when they thought that they should have got more.  I also understood how social services workers and managers had to make choices about the use of resources. With the best will in the world we could not provide everything that everyone wanted. Most times it was not my decision but whatever I thought I felt the need to represent the department. 

This was not about giving the party line but about discussing with people the difficult decisions that social services faced every day. I saw a marked change in my time at all levels from local to national working, where the honesty of debate enhanced working relationships between all sectors. It will never be perfect but it is so much better than regarding each other with suspicion and distrust. There is then the step further after discussion which is seeing if things can indeed be improved.  Where I saw that there was a real problem which could be solved I would take that back to the department to see if anything could be changed.

As trustees of charities we represent our organisations to the outside world. We have a greater responsibility than an individual worker or manager for the workings of the organisation because we are the ones who set the framework for what is done. We are the leaders not the followers. If we are unhappy with the organisation then we have to work with fellow trustees (and staff if there are any) to change the organisation. Difficulties arise when we wear several hats - in Unitarian circles we may be a trustee of a local congregation, a district, a society and/or the (national) General Assembly - and sometimes we want to make comments just as  us as individuals without having to think about wearing any other kind of hat.

This blog represents what I think, it does not represent what my local community thinks. But how can we be sure that people understand which hat (or none) we are wearing? To some extent it has to be the context and to some extent it has to be explicit. The difficulties arise when we are being contentious and/or when we are criticising organisations of which we are trustees. In the former instance we need to ensure that we do not cast a bad light upon any organisation we are a trustee of by being publicly contentious. We need to be sure that we make it clear who we are speaking on behalf of, usually ourselves. In some circumstances it would do well to pass any public statements we are going to make to fellow trustees for information and comment even if we ourselves are clear that we are speaking personally.

If we are going to be overtly critical of organisations of which we are trustees then we need to take extreme care. First we are criticising ourselves - as trustees we take collective responsibility for the whole organisation. Second we may be setting ourselves apart from the organisation - saying that someone else is in control. Third we may be making public those things which are not in the public domain. And fourth if we are not criticising ourselves then it is likely that we are criticising others - people we have to work with, people we are leading and people who we have a role to protect. It is one thing to address organisational difficulties internally and quite another to do it publicly.

There are of course situations when there has been a significant debate and we do not agree with the majority decision - in this instance we may write a minority report or be clear with our fellow trustees that we cannot keep quiet. Perhaps there will be a discussion with other trustees about how this will be handled. At the end of the day all trustees must be focused on what is best for the organisation and outright war usually isn't the best approach.

It can be very easy to think that we are wearing a different hat or just discussing issues from a personal point of view but ... and this is an important but ... we must be considered in what we say, supportive of our colleagues and if we think there is an issue then raise it internally first, not to the world at large. As a trustee our collective responsibility is always there, we cannot switch it on and off. And then we must ask how we may solve any problems. If we are focused on the best interests of our organisation then we must take steps to address those problems with our fellow trustees and staff.

Being part of any organisation, in whatever role, can and does limit our freedom to say what we think. However it does this for the greater good - for the health of the organisation - to ensure that everyone else in the organisation can trust us and we can trust everyone else in the organisation - to enable the organisation to speak with one voice. In our relatively small Unitarian community we need to be mindful that we make it  clear in what capacity we are speaking.

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