ACS Observer – Oppermann calls for spill

Australian Computer Society President Ian Oppermann will move a vote of no confidence in the organisation’s Management Committee at the scheduled ACS Congress meeting to be held next Friday 9 October.

The Congress is the governing body of ACS, comprising 25 people spread over the National Management Committee, the National Congress, eight State and Territory Branch Executive Committees, and the Vice Presidents of three Advisory Boards.

The governance structure is complex. Congress elects the Management Committee, which also automatically includes the immediate past President and the CEO which has executive power. Eligibility for election to both the Congress and the Management Committee are governed by an arcane set of rules which makes the US Electoral College look like a model of democracy.

It is a complex system which entrenches incumbents and which almost guarantees petty politics and factional battles. It has always been so, but this year it has become divided between a small but dominant group intent on commercialising the organisation (increasingly known as the ‘clique’) and a less cohesive group, led by Oppermann, increasingly concerned about the behaviour and many of the actions of this clique. The two groups are at loggerheads over many issues.

Oppermann’s action in calling for a spill is designed to break the impasse. In a letter to all members of ACS Congress on 2 October, and since widely circulated by concerned Congress members, Oppermann gave notice of a motion of no-confidence in the Management Committee.

He also gave notice of three other motions calling for the minutes of the Management Committee meetings to be made available to Congress, for the establishment of a pecuniary interest register for Management Committee members, and for a complete audit to be undertaken of ACS’s expenditure over the last two financial years and of all formal agreements entered into by the ACS during that time.

These motions are designed to address the concerns that many members have expressed about the ACS’s financial dealings in recent years. Questions have been raised about a lack of transparency over expenditure and a number of commercial activities that many regard as antithetical to the organisation’s charter.

Oppermann has also called two further meetings of Congress, on 2 November and on 16 November. The first will be to vote on the removal of all members of the Management Committee, including Oppermann himself. This will need the approval of two thirds of Congress members. The second is to elect a new Management Committee. Presumably, these meetings will be held only if the motion of no-confidence passes at next Friday’s meeting.

The stakes are high. Tensions have been building for some time after the organisation’s botched attempt last year to change its Constitution to that of a Company Limited by Guarantee. Serious irregularities in the calling of and the voting at the Special General Meeting called to effect that change led to the ACS losing an important court action called by disaffected members and losing over half a million dollars in legal fees and costs in the process.

Oppermann’s move comes after six months of turmoil within the ACS after he was elected President in March on a reformist platform promising greater transparency and greater member engagement.

“Unfortunately, I believe Management Committee has moved in the opposite direction,” he said in his letter to Congress. “Management Committee has refused to answer questions asked by members, Management Committee has asked online news outlets to ‘cease-and-desist’, and we produce summaries of Management Committee meetings with the minimum detailed legally required. There are reasonable questions as to the use of member funds which Management Committee does not address. A member based organisation should be open by default.”

One of those cease-and-desist letters was written because of articles I had written in online publication iTWire, which was threatened with unspecified legal action if it did not remove all my articles about  the ACS and promise to publish no more.

To save iTWire from embarrassment and possible legal action, I took down all my articles and reposted them on my personal website. I also started this informal newsletter. The other publication that was sent a nasty legal letter was InnovationAus, which had not even written about ACS for months and rightly ignored the threats, and which has continued to report on the matter.

Oppermann is also concerned with the Management Committee’s failure to address serious allegations of bullying within the organisation. Earlier this year he engaged independent consultancy VoiceProject to survey ACS staff about the organisation’s culture. He said in his letter that “a significant number of ACS staff who responded to the survey did not believe the ACS is an ethical organisation, and is NOT safe to speak up.”

This has been confirmed by a number of staff members who have contacted me directly with concerns about the organisation’s culture of intimidation. Oppermann said in his letter that ACS is losing 40% of its staff every year, a figure confirmed by staff members who have contacted me and other analysis I have seen.

Last week, since I last wrote about bullying within the ACS, two separate senior members of staff contacted me anonymously encouraging me to continue to expose what was going on within the organisation. They are both seriously concerned that the behaviour of the Management Committee is putting the organisation’s reputation at risk, which may affect the organisation’s viability and ultimately even their jobs.

They told me there are many very good and hard-working people in the organisation who are at their wits’ end with what is going on. Some staff had previously told me that they were taking their allegations of bullying public. That has now happened, and SafeWork NSW has begun a formal investigation into the allegations.

“My view is that Management Committee has failed the ACS, and in good conscience, I cannot condone the Committee continuing with its current membership,” said Oppermann in his letter. “Management Committee has failed to ensure the staff of ACS have a safe working environment. This is a fundamental, legally enforced, responsibility for any Management Committee.”

Things are seriously out of hand. The ACS’s reputation is suffering badly, and its attempts to suppress information about what is going on internally has only made things worse. Oppermann has an extremely important day job as NSW Chief Data Scientist with serious responsibilities in analysing the effects of the COVIS-19 pandemic, and he can ill afford the time and effort he is having to put into fixing problems within the ACS.

In calling in for a spill he is attempting to cut the Gordian Knot and reset the organisation. Any serious observer must see this is the only way forward. We can only hope that Congress members appreciate the seriousness of the situation and will vote accordingly next Friday.

Expect some fireworks this week. On a personal level, as a concerned ACS member myself, I ask all members of Congress to seriously consider voting for Oppermann’s motion of no-confidence in the Management Committee.

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