Is ACS reconciliation possible?

24 June 2020

The Australian Computer Society has begun the process of healing the rift between its management group and an influential group of dissidents who have criticised its strategies. New ACS President Ian Oppermann promised to reconcile the two sides when he was elected in March 2020.

Any reconciliation has a long way to go. The dissident group, led by Canberra academic and consultant Dr Roger Clarke and comprising many senior ACS figures, has been openly criticising the direction of the ACS and the strategy of its management team for almost a year now.

After the ACS held an Extraordinary General Meeting in October 2019, the group took the ACS to court over the many irregularities in the vote held at the meeting to change the ACS Constitution. They won the court case, with the judge handing down a scathing finding extremely critical of ACS management.

ACS’s legal fees in the case exceeded $500,000, plus it also had to pay the legal fees of Roger Clarke and his group. The vote to change the ACS to a Company Limited by Guarantee was annulled, with the effect that ACS was without a President and many office bearers until new elections could be held in March.

“They had no Plan B,” Dr Clarke told iTWire. “They assumed the vote would be successful and had not even planned for the elections that would need to be held had the vote been lost.”

Dr Clarke attempted to stand for election to President, but his candidature was rejected on what he regards as spurious technical grounds. Dr Ashley Goldsworthy, a former ACS President and CEO, attempted to stand for Vice President, but was also barred.

The Clarke-Goldsworthy group had many criticisms of ACS management, which remain unresolved. They regarded the irregularities in the October vote as symptomatic of the arrogant attitude of ACS management, which they hold responsible for a significant decline in ACS professional membership over the last five years (it has halved).

The group has criticised ACS management for pursuing commercial opportunities to the detriment of its members, for wasting money on travel and gifts, and for being politically partisan. The most vocal critic has been Dr Goldsworthy, the only man to have been both President and CEO of ACS.

Dr Oppermann’s election as President is seen by many as an opportunity to reconcile the two sides. In the months after his election he was unable to devote much time to ACS business, as his day job as Chief Data Scientist for the NSW government became all consuming with the COVID-19 pandemic.

But recently he has turned his efforts to problems within ACS. Last Friday 19 June the ACS Congress met and allowed Dr Clarke to address it and outline his concerns. After the Congress Dr Oppermann published an article in the ACS magazine Information Age, expressing his willingness to bring the two sides together.

He also issued a statement to iTWire on what was agreed at the 19 June Congress meeting:

  • We agreed to move to become a Company Limited by Guarantee.
  • We agreed there are changes that need to be made to the 2019 draft constitution rather than starting again.
  • We agreed the need to develop a roadmap for reform, clearly outlining when input / consultation periods are open and major stages of the reform process.
  • We agreed to put the existing 2019 draft constitution out for broad feedback using a range of methods such as a technology platform and/or phoning professional members.
  • We agreed to identify an engagement approach with those members who openly objected to the 2019 constitution in order to receive feedback.
  • We agreed the principle that broad ACS member input and feedback are critical to success of the reform.
  • We agreed to be time bound – Congress has set a target of four months to draft the candidate 2020 Constitution followed by phases of wider consultation and review. The target is to become a company limited by guarantee by July 2021.

Dr Oppermann told iTWire that the meeting spent substantial time discussing four main issues “identified through member feedback,” an obvious reference to the concerns raised by Dr Clarke’s group. He said those issues were:

  • Trust and Transparency: We agreed we need to communicate a schedule for reform, when input / consultation periods are open, and the timing of major phases. We agreed we need to communicate more about ACS activities and progress, in different ways for different members.
  • Potential Board member lock-in: We agreed to clarify that any new constitution has a maximum lifetime term. Six yeas was the limit in the 2019 draft constitution.
  • The Importance of Branches: We reconfirmed that Branches are relevant and need to remain relevant in any new constitution. We agreed Branches need to run under a hybrid model – with ACS central office input and support, and with local branch content and activities
  • Members: We reconfirmed that ACS is a Member based organisation. We agreed the need for member engagement which allows engagement with different members in different ways

“It was a wide ranging conversation genuinely attempting to address issues that have been raised about the earlier constitutional reform process,” said Dr Oppermann.” I trust that all ACS members will take the opportunity to provide feedback on the areas of greatest concern in the 2019 draft constitution and input during the consultation phases.”

Dr Clarke agrees that all this is a step in the right direction, but says the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. “The meeting was very civil, and I was given a good opportunity to present our case,” he told iTWire.

“Oppermann’s statement on what was agreed at the Congress meeting is very welcome. But it’s not clear yet who will plan and conduct the consultation process and develop the new draft constitution.

“For very good reasons, members do not trust either the CEO or the Management Committee to perform those key functions, and the President is already over-stretched and hence can’t take direct responsibility for them,” said Dr Clarke.

“We proposed a small independent task force, convened by an independent senior member. If the vehicle for developing the constitution isn’t credible, the considerable positives arising from the Congress meeting will quickly dissipate.”

Dr Clarke also issued a statement:

”Many longstanding members of the Society have been dissatisfied with the last few years’ reductions in services to the membership. They see too much emphasis placed on commercial activities, and they believe the wrong priorities are being applied to surpluses from business operations.

“These problems have led to a decline in professional membership at a time when the power of ICT is reaching a crescendo, and the country needs, more than ever before, a strongly professional approach to the application of ICT.

“During late 2019 and early 2020, the ‘Rescue Your ACS’ group took the necessary steps to prevent highly inappropriate governance arrangements being approved. Since March 2020, there has been a far greater degree of acceptance by the ACS executive of the need for a different approach. This coincided with the election of Dr Ian Oppermann as President.

“We believe the key principle of ACS it is the centrality of the professional membership. ACS is of, and for, the members, and professional members must be directly involved in the Society’s values, strategy and priorities.

“A number of more specific principles derive from that one. The Constitution itself must be under members’ control. But so also must key documents concerning such things as membership levels and standards, and the policies and procedures for evaluating individuals and accrediting educational institutions. It also needs to be a strong emphasis on member services.

“Recent reductions in Branch powers and resources must be reversed. The ACS must be structured and organised to draw energy from its members throughout the nation, not just in the CBDs of the major capital cities.

“Finally, the group’s focus shifted to the process whereby a new constitution could come about. To achieve a member-driven constitution, openness and participation are essential.”