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The Royal College of Nursing is to amend its election campaigning guidelines, allowing much greater use of social media, and will review its election policy in the near future, in the wake of the stalled process to find a new president.
A top barrister has found the decision to disqualify two candidates from the RCN’s presidential election was made in “good faith” and in accordance with relevant law and procedures.
However, Simon Cheetham QC concluded that the college’s policy for elections needed to be “significantly revised” going forwards, in order to prevent similar problems in the future.
The RCN has subsequently pledged to revamp its election procedures and guidance.
“It is fair to say that there was something of an explosion on social media after the expulsion of the two candidates”
Mr Cheetham was commissioned by the RCN’s council to conduct an independent review of the 2020 RCN presidential election, following a backlash over the disqualification of two candidates over the summer – incumbent Professor Anne Marie Rafferty and former chair of congress Stuart McKenzie.
In a report published today, Mr Cheetham determined that the returning officer – who was responsible for managing the election – did not breach the related law or the RCN’s charter, standing orders or election policy in sanctioning the disqualifications.
But he did find areas of concern, which in many cases were the result of ambiguity or gaps in the college’s election policy and guidance, meaning interpretation was left down to the returning officer, who is also the RCN’s head of governance.
The reason Professor Rafferty and Mr McKenzie were cast out of the election in August was because they were deemed to have breached college rules banning candidates from using RCN resources to promote their campaigns.
However, Mr Cheetham said there was a “lack of clarity” in the RCN’s policy around what was classed as an RCN resource in relation to social media beyond the central RCN Facebook and Twitter pages, for example.
In addition, he said it was “clear that no thought was given prior to the election as to how Covid-19 had affected the way candidates should campaign”, as the guidance still stated that face-to-face communication was the best method.
“Irrespective of Covid-19, there is also the fact that social media has very quickly become the main way that many individuals communicate,” Mr Cheetham added.
Mr Cheetham also labelled it “surprising” that the policy did not spell out the exact process for dealing with complaints.
He found that the 76 complaints received in total from RCN members about the election were not all handled in “a clear, transparent and timely way”.
While there was no provision in the policy to give candidates facing allegations a chance to put their side across before disqualification, Mr Cheetham said he believed there should be.
“That would also have gone some way to address a valid criticism from both disqualified candidates that, because the decision was completely unexpected, they were unprepared for it,” he said.
“That made it much harder to deal with and left them feeling isolated.”
In the RCN’s election policy, disqualification is the only sanction available for candidates who are found to have broken the rules.
Although, significantly, Mr Cheetham said almost everyone he interviewed for the review highlighted that the policy stated twice that use of RCN resources “may” lead to disqualification and once that it “will” lead to disqualification.
Nevertheless, Mr Cheetham said not enough consideration was made when the policy was being drawn up about the potential consequences for the individual of being disqualified from such a high-profile election.
“Quite obviously, these decisions were very upsetting for those two candidates and they also caused huge reputational damage, both individually and institutionally,” he said.
He also said there was an “important question over how the decisions were communicated”, given the significance of them, and highlighted the backlash that occurred on social media in the wake of the disqualifications.
“It is fair to say that there was something of an explosion on social media after the expulsion of the two candidates, particularly on Twitter, some of which I have seen,” said Mr Cheetham.
“It is not within the remit of this review to consider it further, but I note that it created a difficult and unhelpful atmosphere for all involved and included some unpleasant attacks on individuals, including the returning officer.”
“I want to take this opportunity to apologise for the upset and anger some members have felt”
Mr Cheetham said some people he interviewed saw “a potential tension” between the returning officer’s role as a member of RCN management and their “necessary independence as returning officer”.
He said it was his own view that within a trade union, “there is much to be said for taking the role of the returning officer away from an appointed member staff to an external, independent body”.
Overall, Mr Cheetham concluded that the returning officer had reached her decisions “in good faith” and without wrongdoing.
However, he said the “outcomes suggest that the policy needs to be significantly revised in the light of this election”.
“Any elections policy should be pragmatic and purposive, with the aim of achieving equal access and exposure for all candidates across all forums to ensure fair elections,” said Mr Cheetham.
“The experience of this election suggests the current policy does not achieve that,” he added.
The report does not make recommendations for the RCN, as they will come in a second part of the review due later in the year.
However, the RCN has already decided to make changes based on Mr Cheetham’s initial findings and suggestions. These include:
- Amending the campaigning guidelines for other RCN elections taking place this year, allowing much greater use of social media platforms
- Delegating the responsibilities of the returning officer to an independent scrutineer, which includes the responsibility for managing any complaints received from candidates
- Committing to reviewing the election policy and guidelines once the 2020 elections have concluded
Chair of RCN Council, Dave Dawes, stressed that the report set out an “independent view of what occurred”, and that publishing it was “part of our continued drive to improve transparency”.
“I want to take this opportunity to apologise for the upset and anger some members have felt as a result of our handling of the presidential elections and subsequent complaints,” he said.
“We are a member-led organisation and I will do everything in my power to make it feel that way,” he added.
“I’m absolutely committed to working with members to make the RCN the best it can be.”
The presidential election was terminated in September after the remaining two candidates withdrew.
An extraordinary general meeting (EGM) was due to be held at the end of this month to allow members a platform to discuss their concerns about the election and to vote on two resolutions.
One of the resolutions, if passed, would have allowed Professor Rafferty to theoretically remain in her post for a further six months following 1 January 2021, when her term is due to come to and end.
However, the EGM was postponed at the eleventh hour due to the second wave of Covid-19, to the dismay of petitioners who called for it. A new date is yet to be set.
The RCN election row as covered by Nursing Times