ACS battle on hold – for now

23 February 2020

ANALYSIS – The increasingly bitter battle for the control of the heart and soul of the Australian Computer Society has taken a short breather. But expect some more fireworks in the next a few weeks.

The two parties in the dispute had been ordered back to court on 20 February for a ‘case management’ session intended to help them resolve their differences. The hearing was held, but all that was resolved was the details of how ACS is to pay the costs of the rebel group that successfully challenged the October vote to turn the society into a company limited by guarantee.

The actual case management, in which the two parties are to make submissions to the court suggesting how differences can be resolved, has been put back until 11 March.

Coincidentally, that is the very day when ACS is to hold the elections for president and other senior office bearers that were never held last year because the organisation’s senior management was so certain that the constitutional changes would be pushed through. ACS is currently without a president for the first time in its 52 year history, and six of the 11 on the  National Committee are vacant. Some state branches have no functioning committees.

We might call the two factions the commercialists and the traditionalists. The commercialists are led by CEO Andrew Johnson and the remaining members of the National Committee. They are supported by many senior members.

The traditionalists are led by Canberra academic and consultant Roger Clarke. He is supported by many senior ACS Fellows and Life Members who are alarmed at what they believed to be the over-commercialisation of the organisation.

CEO Johnson has almost completed a national roadshow intended to set out the commercialist’s vision and to shore up support. iTWire attended the Sydney event, held on 21 February.

Johnson held the floor for an hour, giving a lucid if rather self-congratulatory overview of ACS’s achievements over the last few years. The strategy part of it, which might have talked about what will happen in the future, was a little thin. Unlike the earlier events in Brisbane and Melbourne, there was no dissension or curly questions.

At the start of his presentation Johnson mentioned ‘the elephant in the room’ of the court case, saying that because the matter was before the courts would not be able to comment on it, during his presentation or in question afterwards. iTWire is advised that this is incorrect. The matter ceased to be sub judice on 23 December, when the initial judgement was handed down. The subsequent case management elements are administrative.

The vision that Johnson outlined is reasonably straightforward, if you strip away the usual management gobbledygook, It is to make ACS a commercial organisation with multiple sources of income and a major player in Australia’s IT scene. Johnson’s presentation was full of commentary the ACS’s good works and its strong relationship with government and industry, with lots of pictures of politicians. There was not a lot of actual vision, apart from the handout given to all attendees outlining ACS’s 2017-2022 strategy.

That document, which also acted as the structure of Johnson’s presentation, revolves around capacity (increasing the resources of the IT profession),  capability (building skills in the industry) and catalyst (ACS’s role in sparking innovation).

The numbers Johnson presented are impressive. ACS’s revenue has increased massively in recent years, as have profitability and assets. The organisation has expanded into further accreditation activities and has been active in promoting IT as a career for young people. Johnson made special mention of its successful efforts to increase female participation in the industry.

But it is what he did not talk about that is equally telling. No mention at all of the bungled vote last October and management’s duplicitous behaviour in attempting to force it through. No mention of all of the fact that ACS is without a president and a representative management committee. No mention of all of the many criticisms of the organisation’s direction that have led to the current management crisis.

No mention at all of declining membership numbers. There are now fewer than 5,000 professional members, compared to around 15,000 ten years ago. No mention at all of reliance on accreditation schemes as the major source of revenue.

Johnson’s errors of omission are consistent with one of the major criticisms levelled at the current leadership of ACS – its failure to listen to, or even acknowledge, the increasingly loud voices of concern being raised about the organisation’s direction.

Roger Clarke, leader of the ginger group that brought the successful court action against ACS, told iTWire that the main reason for the delay in the case management process was that ACS refused to even acknowledge anything is amiss, apart from the irregularities in October’s vote, so roundly criticised by the judge.

“They are trying to pretend there’s no problem. It seems to be a tactical move, and that if they ignore us we will go away. We will not.”

Clarke is considering standing for president in the vote that will take place next month, though he would need a special exemption because of stringent conditions placed on the voting procedure after constitutional changes ten years ago.

“Those changes concentrated power into a self-perpetuating clique. We were asleep at the wheel back then and let that happen,” Clarke said. “Not this time.”

He is currently sounding out support and will make a decision on whether to stand for president before nominations close on 26 February.

He may have difficulty winning, or even standing, but his nomination would have the effect of further raising the profile the group he leads and the concerns they have. Whatever the case, any further attempts to change the constitution of ACS would have to take place through another vote of members.

Such a vote would draw much more attention than last October’s aborted effort, which the judge found was marred by extreme irregularities. He roundly criticised the secrecy, the lack of due process, and the attempts by ACS management to manipulate the outcome.

“It’s intriguing why, in order to make ACS a commercial organisation, the proposed constitution needs to embody the features that it does,” says Roger Clarke. “Why should there be a reduction of the power of members to vote? And why only for a carefully managed slate of candidates?

“Why do we need to see a centralisation of all power in the board, including the power to replace all governing documents as it sees fit, without approval by, or even consultation with, the members?

“I don’t have a problem with the ACS becoming more commercial. We need to move with the times, though it’s intriguing how this move to become more commercial is consistent with being a not-for-profit, and therefore tax-exempt, organisation.

“The current direction, and the way things are being done, are not consistent with the values of a professional society. And, most importantly, they are not benefiting the members.”