Former President of the IMechE, Geoff Baker, talks openly to Journalist, Georgia Betts, about the impact of the special meeting on the Institution and what it means for the integration and reform of the engineering profession.
Geoff, you have stood down as President after only a month in the role. The Chief Exec has resigned, the Institution seems to be tearing itself apart and your vision for integration and reform of the Institution and the engineering profession seems to be in tatters. The average member must be totally confused and asking what has happened to the Institution?
Firstly, the vision to create a modern Engineering Institution of the future relevant to and representing all disciplines of engineering is certainly not in tatters; because it isn’t just my vision, it is a vision I share with thousands of engineers across the profession. It will happen, but recent events at the IMechE have shown that small, but influential pockets of resistance, can stop progress towards that goal of a unified profession in its tracks. There are lessons to be learnt from what has happened at the IMechE for all 36 of our Engineering Institutions.
So, what did happen at the IMechE in recent months? As I understand it, everything seemed to be going well – discussions with other Institutions were progressing, as they shared the same vision. The Trustee Board, Council and the Executives all seemed to be aligned and a programme of member consultation was planned over the coming months and year…
Since 2016 there was concern being expressed amongst members, some at a very senior level, about the performance of the Institution’s commercial operations. And this concern grew in recent months which resulted in what came next.
Looking back in hindsight, we had a perfect storm brewing in the Institution. In all honesty, I don’t think we saw what was coming, and if we had, I think we could have handled things differently.
Why does the Institution need to get involved in these commercial activities in the first place?
A very good question and one that is asked by many members. The simple answer is, income from membership subscription only covers a proportion of the cost of an Institution’s learned society activity; in fact, most of the larger Engineering Institutions have very significant commercial operations, whose contributions bring in a significant proportion of their income that is then spent on the Institution’s charitable and learned society activities. However, investments must be mixed motive investments to meet Charity Commission guidelines.
Can you shed a little light on the call for the recent special meeting within the Institution?
The call for a special meeting was one of those seismic disruptive events that triggers concerns on so many different matters, many of which were unconnected with the specific matters of the motions of the special meeting, a bit like Brexit.
As a result, there have been some very positive things that have come out from the call for the special meeting. It has prompted much debate from across the Institution, from the type of Institution that our Members want, to concerns about the way the Institution has been run.
These debates, that have taken place across the grass roots of our Membership, have covered many topics from the way our divisions and groups are organised, our priorities on expenditure, and the fitness for purpose of governance of the Institution.
I have taken part in many of these discussions and debates, but above all, along with my fellow Trustees, we listened and took note. The Trustees are now moving forward with a Membership Consultation Plan which I believe will make our Institution more closely aligned to the needs of our Members: http://www.imeche.org/about-us/imeche-governance/trustee-board-consultation-plan
You mentioned here positive things about what came out of the special meeting, which indicates you feel that there were negative aspects?
Yes, unfortunately there were. The call for the special meeting, backed by the resolutions contained in the initial call, were made possible by a facility in our By-Laws that allows for any 5 members, the requisitors, to obtain 50 signatures, and the Trustees are then obliged to call, and make arrangements for, a Special Meeting.
The problem from the start was that the motions called for removal of Trustees themselves, this by-law had never been used before to attempt to get rid of elected volunteers.
So, the Trustees were both in the dock defending themselves and trying to organise a meeting that was fair to both sides. As soon as Trustees tried to counteract the misinformation that was being put out about them on social media and requisitioners website(s), they were accused of being biased.
The other ironic aspect of the special meeting was that the majority of the Trustees who were in the dock and were a part of the accusations of the special motions, were not even Trustees at the time when criticisms on them were being put forward. In fact, the only Trustee who had been around the time when all the acquisitions were made, was the previous president herself, who was not sitting alongside her fellow Trustees, but sitting as the ‘Independent Chair’ or judge of the meeting.
A lot more could be said about events prior to the special meeting and indeed about the running of the special meeting, but nothing can be gained now by me talking further about this.
It is my personal desire to move on and hope that the remaining members of the Trustee Board are allowed to remain in place, fulfil the duties they were elected to perform and work with Council and Institution Members and heal the divisions that have been caused by special meeting where the Institution has been hugely damaged by this action.
I believe that the initial financial concerns of the requisitioners, could have been addressed in a way far less damaging to the Institution. There are lessons to be learnt from the Special Meeting, the background to it, the way it was conducted and the behaviours of certain members on other members, which can only come from an independent investigation, either internally, or from someone like the Charity Commission.
Other Engineering Institutions are experiencing similar problems that have been brought about by calls for special meetings, where a very small number of members can totally undermine the governance, democratic voting processes and management of the Institution.
This by-law must be amended otherwise progress towards integration of our profession will be stopped in its tracks by a few that oppose it, before any debate by the membership takes place.
It is an extremely worrying situation for our profession. The special meeting by-law, used in the way it has been, is the achilles heel that could prevent integration of our profession and result in our Institutions becoming engineering clubs for the few.
That is not my vision for our profession, nor I believe, for the majority of our members or the missing 3 million that could become members, if we became relevant and fit for purpose for 21stcentury.
Why did you feel you had to stand down as President?
It was clear very early on that special meeting was about regime change, as I said the concerns over finance and performance could have been handled in a far less damaging way for the Institution.
Anyone who knows me will understand the respect I have both for our Institution and the office of President and will appreciate that I have not taken this decision lightly. I have been a Member of the Institution for 40 years and to become its 133rd President remains one of the greatest honours of my career. I reached this conclusion after a huge amount of thought and discussion both with my colleagues on the Trustee Board and with my family, all of whom have been a source of huge support and encouragement during this difficult time.
Unfortunately, the Special Meeting event has had a huge public impact on the Institution. It was a disruptive event that caused the Institution to turn on itself bringing out divisions and factions with different views on the direction the Institution should be going.
Unfortunately, justified or otherwise, I became perceived as part of the problem and for the Institution to try to heal itself, it needed someone who could lead and work with the Trustee Board who is neutral and able to build bridges and get it back on track.
If myself and the Chief Exec had stayed on then the pressure would have moved onto the Trustee Board to stand down, which would have resulted in the Institution being left without any governance and leadership.
Keeping the elected Trustee Board in place had to be the absolute priority for the survival of the Institution. My hope now is that an effective past President is chosen as interim President who can not only unite the membership, but who can gain the respect of the Trustee Board by understanding and appreciating the true situation behind the role they played in protecting the finances and reputation of the Institution.
So where does this put you now? Since you are no longer President, have lost your platform to promote your vision of an Institution of the Future?
Yes I certainly have, but I have also lost the opportunity to serve the membership in the way I had hoped; by providing a more open and member focussed Institution, with proposed changes to Council to make it influential and effective.
I believe the next year will now be one of consolidation and repair of trust in the management and leadership of the Institution; circumstances made it impossible for me to achieve this, which is of tremendous disappointment to me; but this must be done before we can start to look outside and talk in a meaningful way with other Institutions.
However, it does mean that personally I can continue the cause I passionately believe in, and I can help create an Engineering Institution for the Future that is relevant and fit for purpose for the 21stcentury.
Unfortunately, the Special Meeting By-Law and negative social media coverage proved to be effective in stopping progress in several of our large Engineering Institutions. So I imagine it will be used again and again in other Institutions that try to merge. As a result, the merger of 2, 3, 4 or 36 Institutions may not be the easiest way for our profession to come together and unite as one body that speaks for all Engineers. I believe we may need to find other ways and this will now be my focus.
Finally, on the Special Meeting, I have always said that it was wholly unprofessional for elected Members of the Institution to be included in the motions of the Special Meeting, and I’m sure the true reasons behind this will come to light in due course…
Not only does it fundamentally undermine the democratic voting process of the Institution, but it was totally inappropriate to single out a particular group of Trustees that happened to be office at the time of the meeting, when issues concerning the motions went back 7 years when none of the Trustees in the dock were actually around, some had only been on Trustee Board for a few months.
It goes with the territory that special motions and concerns about finances could, and often are, directed to the Executive of an organisation, that is their job and they get paid to take that responsibility, but to include 12 member volunteers in that process is completely unacceptable and a very worrying precedent.
Our priority now is stop looking backwards and inwards at ourselves and to look forward to the exciting future ahead of us and our future generations of Engineers.