Our Sector: Helping officers develop political goals

In the latest in a series on supporting elected officers Jim Dickinson looks at the process of developing political goals with officers

The respective roles of elected officers and staff- and the relationship between them- has been debated and theorised for as long as the student movement has existed. In his introduction to the NUS Annual Report for 1927-8 the then NUS President, Frank Darvell wrote:

“..the office and the staff constitute at once the strength and weakness of the organisation. They are its’ strength because they  introduce continuity into an otherwise inevitably ephemeral society; they enable ideas to be translated into practice and reality to be made of the stuff of resolutions; they relieve already overworked students from an intolerable burden of secretarial duty; and they absorb experience and mould traditions.

They are its’ weakness mainly because they need money for their maintenance; but also in a more subtle way because, by the very fact they are the one unchanging element in an unsteady community, they tend to direct as well as serve. The staff ceases to be a support and becomes a goad. That danger can and has been guarded against…”

A heavily debated question for managers has been to consider how they can support their elected officers in their role. When discussed in the theoretical this tends to assume that staff work in a students’ union is delegated by a board or executive, yet practically in some unions it is the commercial or services work that is carried out by staff with “the political stuff left to the officers”. The question that then comes up in lots of unions in July and August is why elected officers seem to want to change small things that are about the services or commercial elements- and a debate as to whether that is their role or not.

I tend to assume three things.

  • Students’ Union officers (ought to) want to change things
  • The things they want to change are usually things they know, or have been close to
  • The changes that they express are conclusions to thought processes

The question for me then tends not to be “how do we persuade them away from changing things” and is more “how can we grow their ambition for change”.

A Students’ Unions’ success can be seen as shaped by the tensions between representational functions, and professional/administrative forms.

Child, Loveridge and Warner (1973) take this tension as central factors affecting union success. They define administrative rationality as ‘the logic of a goal-implementation or operational system, while representative rationality is the logic of a goal-formation or policy-deliberating system’. The “representative” rationality was characterized by a multiplicity of communications methods and strategies to reach as many people as possible; holding back on decisions until the maximum amount of consultation; lots of democracy, committees, etc. It required the union leaders, and thus the organisation, to be representative of members’ aspirations and wishes.


But given that to run an organisation that needed to actually carry out the tasks of representation, there was also an “administrative rationality” required. This was characterized by carrying out tasks efficiently, employing experts, budgetary control, etc. It made the union efficient. As illustrated in figure 1, they pose representational effectiveness against administrative effectiveness or rationality.

They essentially define union effectiveness as an outcome of good union representation and good union administration. They point out these goals are frequently in direct conflict though they are not always at odds. In their model (see figure 1), an effectively representative union will be democratically driven from the bottom, while an administratively efficient large organisation will be managed well from the top.

The problem of course is when the two come into play together- and sometimes staff and officers take on each other’s roles. Over the years I frequently have seen officers talking inside the administrative context “this would make more money” and staff talking inside the representative rationality “isn’t this is what students want”. Obviously the goal must be to find a way via a relationship based on trust that makes sure that the two can interplay effectively.

One of my perceptions is that a lot of the summer for officers is spent being told how little can be changed (both institutionally, union-wide and in society) via the process of “induction”. Unions induct officers into their thinking, not the other way around. In addition, when expressing their change-ideas, officers come up against tacit opposition or avoidance from staff or other officers. Once people are introduced to the complexities of why things are the way they are, they tend to lose their desire for radical change.

But if we see the change idea as a creative thought process- problem, ideas, solution, we should instead support officers in thinking about what and how needs to change, with staff then tasked in joint objective setting and problem solving. That requires creative conversations that search for political objectives.

When I worked in Students’ Union development, I was once called in by a Union CEO to “talk the officers out of their latest daft idea”. They had proposed that the union issue “snakey b tokens” as a reward for good deeds- with the officers furious that the managers were blocking it and the managers convinced that the idea was a terrible one.

As part of the discussion I asked the officers what they were trying to achieve when they proposed the idea in order to try to generate some political markers of success that staff could work within as professionals.

The ideas that came out were as follows:

  • A need to target sports teams for involvement in the union
  • A need to be seen to advertising the officers and their roles within the bar operation
  • A way of creating positive awareness of the union
  • A way of rewarding good behaviour amongst those involved in the union
  • A way of rewarding loyal student customers

We then gave managers in the union an hour to develop ways to achieve these “bigger” political goals and the results were startling- rich, detailed, impactful plans that effectively combined the officers’ political ideas with the managers’ experience.

There are a million ways to achieve most political objectives- and it is important that officers set objectives that give space for managers to develop proposals that fit broad political objectives so that the two “rationalities” marry appropriately. It is also important for managers to understand and realise that they operate in a political environment, and that their role is both to deliver financially and also operationally on officer priorities.

Crucially, it’s for managers through informal discussion and support to help officers to convert their sometimes parochial conclusions into bigger, better political goals, expanding not contracting their ambition and scope for positive change.

Posted in Our sector.

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