Our Sector: Are we all allies or are we the problem?

Reflections on the SU staff-officer relationship

Introduction- Changing Students’ Unions

Our unions, with renewed vigour over the last 5-10 years, have focussed more than ever on the purpose of defending and extending the rights of their members, and it’s showing in their evolution, particularly of staff roles. We’ve gone from staff teams of bar staff and advisors to recruiting campaigners, researchers, communicators, community organisers, activists, dreamers, artists and even political representatives. It’s an exciting time to be around unions, but it starts to challenge traditional assumptions and models when it comes to the staff- officer relationship.

Inspired by conversations about the change in culture that this has generated, this summer I interviewed 50 membership services and student voice managers over six weeks, seeking to get answers to some key questions:

  • Who supports elected officers and how do they do it?
  • What makes staff tick
  • What hurdles do they have to overcome when supporting officers
  • How do they get over those challenges?

I was particularly interested in the role of staff who were not CEOs, as this is often lost in the discourse around officer support. What I found was an unseen set of natural laws that has evolved around elected officers and selected staff. Time has an effect, in terms of experience, but so does proximity, i.e. how close an individual is to the material decision making.

Officers and staff exert a force on each other and this is where the idea of proximity really matters. It’s nowhere near as simple as leader-civil servant, and much more nuanced than the tales of shadowy Machiavellian operators subverting the leadership that we see in The Thick of It or Yes Minister. There is an interest- but it is not necessarily a self-interest.

This influence calls into question the traditional held view of the staff as civil servant model:

  • The civil servant model is usually based on a commissioning and administrative relationship, and is derived from positional power in terms of roles.
  • It’s a handy metaphor, in terms of elected and selected, but unhelpful in describing both the actual source and execution of union work – political or otherwise.
  • Civil servants sign up to the Nolan Principles of public office. It would be interesting to see our movement adopt whistleblowing policies from SU staff to memberships!

Above all, politics runs deeply with staff, particularly in Membership Services, and now and then this sparks friction with our elected colleagues. In any team this friction is healthy and expected – but I wanted to actually understand how staff operated. What is it, for example, that we do to satisfy our motivation to win on an issue, whilst ensuring that this is the product of authentic student leadership?

Shared Motivations- Different Methods and choices

My interviews revealed the extent to which officers and staff largely share the same core of motivations, passions and sense of mission. Politics, though, is all about power and choices; the positional differences between officers and staff cause different ways of executing those politics. But power itself, and who holds it, is less relevant compared to the interests that our power serves, such as education, students, the public good and civil liberties.

One of the things that stood out was that there was an in-built limiter which would cause staff to restrain their own politics: the legitimacy of the elected students and the primacy of students solving problems for students. This told me something new about how staff get things done, how teams that work actually work. It reveals a role that is not simply one of a civil servant, but one of a staff member acting as a dedicated ally, who would clear the path, work out the angle, advise, mentor, protect, advocate, learn and remember.

Staff wanted to win on the issues by supporting students to identify the issues and to do the winning. They may not be students, but they are dedicated to the reason SUs exist and the form of their work is as important as outcome. But this story of intuitive, skilled and principled political operators, who genuinely strive to support student leadership, is akin to the story of Icarus – the more engaged you are in the politics, the closer you get to the sun, and none of us want our feathers to melt (for this metaphor, read get fired).


So what threatens Icarus’ feathers in the world of officer support? What are the biggest, most taboo issues for committed coordinator, junior manager, senior manager and even CEO when trying to actually win?

In this piece I highlight some of my key interview questions. I’d encourage you to ask them of yourself. In some cases I first heard text book answers in the civil servant paradigm but probed deeper, seeking the gritty truth! In all cases I was able to tease out a fascinating set of experiences and competencies that reveal SU staff that support officers effectively to be clever, skilled, subtle operators that maximise the chances of students to increase their power and make a difference.

Accountability – that’s the members’ job isn’t it?

What do you think that your role is in the accountability of your officers?

The majority of answers to this question were that staff should help make the officers accountable, not hold them to account. Aside from managing risk, they do this through having systems that separate individual and even professional judgements from routine reporting activities, for example automatically listing officer engagements for a student council, as opposed to having to advise that they talk about where they did or didn’t attend.

This also happens when talking about student opinion. The increase in capacity to capture and understand student voice, because of developed marketing and representation teams and a sort of renaissance of direct and deliberative forms of democracy, seems to have confused student opinion with decisions that leaders have to take.

Some staff explained that, faced with potentially opposing membership opinion, their advice wasn’t so much “You can’t” do something, but sometimes “You won’t”- as in the membership won’t let you get away with it. It was about advising on political risk, predicting a social media storm or a difficult meeting, to enable the officer to create strategies to defend their decisions and to do so confidently and aware of all the options.

What the members think is only one part of the puzzle, although it’s closely linked to what they might  do if ignored. A lot of what staff do in this area is occupy the relatively vacant space left by democratic accountability. Staff end up subtly correcting for this distance from the membership, but without actually holding them to account.

When they do this, staff tread a fine line, and it’s about having the self-discipline to recognise when staff have done what they can, and have to hand the consequences over to the officer and halt at that difficult line between “the staffer’s job” and “the sabb’s job.”

Democratically, there is a difference between being wrong and making the wrong decision. The line is drawn, it seems, where staff have ensured that it’s impossible for the officer to be wrong in what they know of the problem, options and impacts; it’s then up to the officer to make the right or wrong decision.

Performance management – what do you mean, “job?”

How do you manage the performance of your officers?

The phrase “Performance Management” was like scraping a chalk board to the majority of staff, yet all could recall an officer not performing in ways that were problematic or damaging. In theory nobody wants to have the conversation about why an officer is not doing their job with the officer because “the officers are neither appointed nor managed by the staff”. As with most things, this clichéd slice of simplicity turned out to be nonsense- and the stock answer, that in this scenario we would bounce things up to the CEO- wasn’t just a cop-out, it was often ineffective.

In truth junior staff employ a number of strategies to help officers succeed with a recognition that to do otherwise would be benign neglect. For the majority of sabbatical officers, their term of office will be their first time in a salaried job, maybe in an office environment. Because they’ve been elected not selected, the normal list of filters has not been applied in terms of attitude and aptitude. Indeed, some members of staff said part of the purpose of officers was to disrupt the usual running of the organisation – and that’s a good thing.

As such, we often don’t want to ruin an officer and turn them into an office worker, but the environment and job type is such that some standards are needed – probably under negotiation!

A common issue surrounds the sense of “double standards” that can apply to officers and staff. For example:

  • An officer misses two meetings in a row. You have a word with them, on egg shells. There’s laughter.
  • A staff member misses two meetings and gets a verbal warning. There’s angriness.

The best results seemed to come from colleagues who adopted a union-wide approach to outcomes, to impact, to getting the job done – for both officers and staff. Where an officer stops delivering, their campaign doesn’t happen – having a youth work style conversation which places the responsibility, the choice they have made, in their hands: by not doing this, you have chosen to not do that campaign/make that change. If it’s mission critical, staff pick it up as activists and the officer loses position and legitimacy.

Ultimately though, performance management is about getting someone back on track, about alerting them to the performance problem, devising a solution and understanding the consequences. The best staff recognised that development, is mainly about noticing a problem, tackling it and helping someone succeed- after all, there is no joy in working in a team where one person is failing, because then they’re having a miserable time. And that’s contagious.

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 2002: Portrait of Niccolo' Machiavelli (Florence, 1469 - Florence, 1527), Italian historian, writer, playwright, politician and philosopher. Oil on board by Santi di Tito (1536-1606), 104x85 cm. Florence, Palazzo Vecchio Or Palazzo Della Signoria (Art Museum) (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Stepping over the line – who do staff work for?

So when it comes down to it, if you were forced, inexplicably to defend one against the others – who do you work for: the officers, the union or the students?

Most staff said they worked for students and the best vehicle for that was the union, with the best way to understand how to work for students being via the officers. This is a fascinating question as the answer, at least in how I triangulated responses to other questions, flies a little in the face of the textbook answer: staff work for their line manager, CEO, Trustee Board. In fact it was only one of the four CEOs I interviewed who said they worked for the Board – with very good reasoning – but it shows that even in this seemingly straight-forward question, there is so much nuance which informs the practiced relationship between staff and officers.

One colleague suggested that they expected officers to treat them with a healthy amount of distrust – to always expect some more, to question alternatives, to challenge staff’s personal beliefs.

The answers that staff gave to this question would suggest that officers are right to challenge the other way, because that healthy distrust is based on the fact that staff have an agenda, a set of personal objectives that has put them where they are and has brought them to students’ unions as vehicles to deliver the change that they think is needed in the world.

This kind of distrust is better described as Politics and it is why it’s possible that the staff as civil servant model just doesn’t hold. Staff hold beliefs and have causes and issues that they want to help champion and overcome. The details might not always align, but the core values do. They might not lead or choose the issues, but they have an investment in such choices, in that they have a view of how the world should be. They want to win on the issues and are possibly better described as allies. Their sense of mission does sometimes mean that for good or bad reasons, they will become activists, but when it’s essentially covering for student-led campaigns, it is like anaerobic respiration – staff can be activists for a short amount of time, but it takes energy and there’s a fall-out: which is compromising on legitimacy.

Assimilating parochial officers and radical staff

If you were the president of this union, leading an occupation of the VC’s office next week, what would be on your placard?

Perhaps the most entertaining question was where I got staff to reflect on the moments where they had been more creative, more passionate, or more political than their own officers. It also meant I was able to get staff to admit all of their beliefs, all of the motivations, the angles, and the frames – everything from judgements on current priorities to beliefs about free education, the two state solution and No Platform policy. In another report, I’ll tell you what staff think about those topics.

I’ve reflected on James Robertson’s work on doxa, on Jim Dickinson’s political and bureaucratic realities and on Gareth Hughes’ presentations on assimilating officers into office workers – like The Borg – as opposed to inducting them. When asking this one question, all of this came together.

Modern unions employ passionate and committed staff who want to change things. Through elections, without intervention, most of the time manifestos repeat themselves because, in the absence of major upheaval, officers have been conditioned by the institution and the union to follow a certain doxa or frame of thought. It’s almost impossible to think outside of it, particularly with such a short time to become the President and look beyond the borders of your student experience.

Staff largely have seen it and done it, and can see the limitations that are assumed as opposed to real – they often think radically because they can assume that something is the way it is because an old grey, white man mentioned something 15 years ago and it became cannon, and because they’re in this to make change, not to toe the line.

This creates an interesting choice for staff that support officers during induction.

  • In some cases staff assimilate officers into a frame of how the union works, how the institution works, even how other unions work, and how to work within that system- for morally good and benign reasons related to effectiveness. This approach might not be radical but it does ensure an officer can achieve “success”.
  • In other cases staff pull back the curtain and introduce a frame that explains why the union or university doesn’t work, how it could be, and what could be done to transform it- often knowing that the chances of achieving that kind of transformational change are weak. This approach can be overwhelming and dispiriting but it is powerful and generate transformational change in some contexts.

In truth in most unions there’s a mixture of both. Sometimes the CEO is the “traditionalist” and junior staff are the subversive revolutionaries. In others junior staff do the “traditional” induction and it’s the SMT that do the curtain pull back. In few unions are the differences admitted, tolerated or coordinated. And it seems to me that understanding and debate about this- which is really a debate about how institutions work and how we might impact upon them in the student interest- is lacking in our culture.


Overall I found that lots of the clichés about the staff-officer relationship are looking dated and are inhibiting the development of a professional culture. Much of the best support is furtive, or perceived as illegitimate or Machiavellian, when it is in truth in line with our values and essential to officer development.

I do think however that SU staff have become more honest, braver and simultaneously challenging and open to challenge. Staff have moved from oppressed administrators, unengaged civil servants, to motivated allies and sometimes, just sometimes, vociferous and inspiring activists.

Critical to the future will be being more open about our roles, our reasons for doing the job, and our motivations. It will be about being supporting the exploration and delivery of our political selves in a way that actually supports student-led change. And it will be about being allies of student radicalism that results in our feathers getting hot, without being burnt.

Posted in Our sector, Uncategorized.

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