ACS Observer – Some Long Weekend Observations

I fear these newsletters may be daily this week. There is a lot going on.

Ian Oppermann’s widely leaked letter to the ACS Congress members has led to furious lobbying over the weekend. Congress members are being contacted by ACS members in large numbers, and are also being reminded by the ruling clique which side their bread is buttered on.

It’s a long weekend in NSW, ACT, Queensland and South Australia. A very long weekend.

While this is going on, I thought I’d make a few observations, informed by the vast amount of information that has been shared with me as a chronicler of events. I am being contacted by dozens of Congress members, ordinary ACS members and ex-members, and concerned ACS staff.

ACS management tried to shut me up and set their legal goons onto me, but my articles reporting on the organisation’s many problems have made me a lightning rod for disaffection. Their attempts to censor me have been extraordinarily counter-productive and ensured much greater coverage of my reportage, as well as providing me with many more sources of information. I don’t have to go looking for things anymore, people come to me.

So, my observations:

Observation #1. The extraordinary secretiveness of the Management Committee

One of Ian Oppermann’s criticisms in his recent letter was the lack of proper reporting to ordinary members by the Management Committee of its activities. “A member based organisation should be open by default,” he rightly said.

The extent to which the Management Committee is prepared to go to hide details of its deliberations and the reasons behind its decisions is truly extraordinary. Only the sketchiest details are given, reluctantly, and then months after their meetings are held.

If you’re a member of the ACS you can look at the summaries of the Management Committee meetings here:

You will notice the most recent that has been published is from 17 June, more than three months ago. And if you look at the agenda items, you will find that most of them simply say ‘Noting’, which means that there was discussion about that matter but that no resolution was passed. There are no details whatsoever of what was actually discussed.

One item, 13.0, is dismissed with ‘Subject to legal privilege’. How extraordinary. What was the agenda item, and why is it legally sensitive?

It is not just the Management Committee meetings. The financial details in the annual report are the least detailed I have ever seen. The Annual Consolidated Financial Statements are little better. It is impossible to tell where the money is coming from and where it goes. Questions about such matters go unanswered.

The organisation is uncommunicative across the board to the point of secretiveness, even paranoia. So much so that many are asking what the organisation is trying to hide. Many people have complained to me about the lack of responsiveness in the organisation’s extraordinary opacity. I have certainly experienced it myself. I believe Oppermann’s motion requesting a detailed audit of ACS’s accounts has a few people worried.

Observation #2. The uncertainty about the next CEO

CEO Andrew Johnson resigned on 8 July, with his three months’ notice ending this Thursday 8 October. That is the day before the Congress meeting at which Oppermann will move his motion of no confidence in the Management Committee.

Johnson recently published a short piece in the ACS newsletter Information Age apparently confirming his departure. But I and many others believe this may be a ruse, and that he is plotting a comeback in concert with his supporters (‘the clique’) in the Management Committee. It would not surprise to see them ‘invite’ him back if Oppermann’s vote of no confidence in the Management Committee is lost on Friday. Those of us who think this may be wrong, but consider the following:

  • There appears to have been no succession planning.
  • Johnson holds monthly meetings of all staff. At no time has he mentioned to them he is leaving.
  • CFO Kim Finch, who has often been acting CEO in Johnson’s absence, went on a month’s leave of absence last Friday, with no explanation given to staff. She had a similar leave of absence only a couple of months ago.
  • There has been absolutely no information about the details of Johnson’s resignation. ACS did not mention why he resigned, and nor has he himself.
  • Why on earth would Johnson bring a charge of bullying against ACS President Ian Oppermann if he was about to leave? What would he have to gain?

Call me old-fashioned, but I think there is something going on here. We will know soon enough.

Observation #3. The integrity of the ACS’s critics

You can dismiss me as a loudmouthed attention seeking journalist, motivated by malice (as the ACS’s solicitors’ letter complaining about my articles said). But it is not so easy to dismiss many of the high profile critics of the ACS Management Committee’s strategy and rather loose approach to corporate responsibility.

Most impressive has been Roger Clarke, leader of the Rescue Your ACS group and the man who personally brought the successful legal action against the ACS last year which exposed its underhand tactics and poor governance to all. He has worked indefatigably to call the ACS to account.

The group he formed is populated mostly by senior ACS members, a very high proportion of them Fellows, the highest grade of membership. I know many other senior ACS members who are not in this group but who are equally concerned.

If you’re wondering about my motives, it is simply that I have felt the need to report honestly on what has been going on. Despite the importance of the issues to the health of the Australian computer industry, there was very little reporting on events. I believe that it is to everybody’s benefit to place it all on the record, so as to foster an open discussion. We can certainly not rely on ACS management to do that.

And then I got a second spur of motivation when the ACS tried to censor me and impugned my professionalism and my integrity. Malice, indeed!`

The motivations of most critics are much nobler. They are appalled at the organisation’s direction and want to return it to the original purpose of being a professional body representing the interests of Australia’s IT professionals. I am deeply impressed with their integrity,

Observation #4. What if the rivers of gold run dry?

Over the last decade ACS’s revenues have grown substantially on the back of the organisation’s monopoly on the testing and accreditation of international IT professionals. It does this through its Migration Skills Assessment, Professional Year and other programs.

The financial accounts are so opaque that it is impossible to tell where the money comes from, but with fewer than 5000 professional members, not much of it comes from them. Even at a conservative $500 per member per year, that is just $2.5 million annually. The rest, more than $40 million, comes from ‘receipts from customers’.

Non-professional members, incorrectly called Associates in the very sketchy reporting, number almost 40,000. Some are true Associates and can vote, but more than three quarters of them are students, Professional Year candidates and other non-voting ‘members’ given that title to swell the numbers. Some rough arithmetic shows that $1000 from each of these roughly equates to the balance of the revenue. Each skills assessment applicant pays around $500, so that program alone is maybe around half of it.

ACS once paid independent assessors and gave them a reasonable amount of money to make the assessments, but now the assessment process has been brought in house ACS is making much more money from each application.

Good work if you can get it, but there are two major problems.

The first is that with international travel vastly restricted by the pandemic, the number of applicants is quickly declining. There is already evidence that this is happening. The summary of the minutes of the 27 May Management Committee meeting show that income year to date is $41.1 million, about 10% lower than forecast $45.3 million. Expenses are also down, but the decline in income may be a sign of problems to come. At that date the pandemic had barely hit.

The second problem is what happens if the Government revokes the ACS’s monopoly on international accreditation and skills assessment. I know for a fact many staff members are very worried about this. If it happens, the reputational damage being done to the organisation by the behaviour of the current management team will be a major factor.

Consider what might happen to the ACS if its primary source of revenue is vastly reduced, or even dries up entirely. The organisation’s entire strategy, based on commercial considerations ahead of the interests of the declining number of professional members, all comes tumbling down like a house of cards.

The only way forward is Oppermann’s plan to spill the Management Committee, elect a new team, and bring some self-respect and unity and what has become a totally dysfunctional organisation. It is now up to the members of theACS Congress to make this happen, at Friday’s vote.

That’s a nice place to end. Thanks for reading this newsletter. Just a few observations, but they might help you understand what is going on. The real action will take place later in the week.

Posted in: ACS