‘I spy strangers’: This was the traditional request for members of the public to leave the galleries of the House of Commons so that the Chamber could sit in private. In 1998, the Modernisation Committee abolished the procedure and replaced it with a simpler one based on the motion ‘that the House sit in private’.
That the House has not sat in private since 2001, suggests an age of greater transparency and accountability, and perhaps even a wish to reach out and understand what the public want.
Why? Well, in the government’s own words: ‘openness and transparency can save money, strengthen people’s trust in government and encourage greater public participation in decision-making’.
Lay membership at professional bodies
So how does this new zeitgeist manifest itself within our own professional body sector? It is clear that many sector organisations have moved to become more open and more accessible, demonstrating a desire to embrace not only their immediate membership but stepping well beyond such close interests.
So how does a professional body manage to better reflect the interests of service users and stakeholders: individuals who engage almost by proxy through the services provided by a member practitioner? What can such a body do to make sure that its service provision remains relevant, fresh and continues to meet users’ needs?
The growing use of lay, independent or non practitioner board members is one key way in addressing this issue.
So what do we know of the lay board member?
A layperson most usually lacks professional qualifications in a particular field, but acquires knowledge and expertise in other fields that both overlap with and inform the professional board with which they engage.
This allows a layperson to input from beyond the professionals’ board’s usual compass and, in turn, contribute towards a successful and holistic outcome. For example, a layperson could be someone who is not a medical doctor but who may assist in some way with the medical care of a patient.
Lay members today play an increasingly important role in maintaining public and stakeholder confidence in the work of boards and committees. They can act as a balance to prevent decisions being taken that fail to fully reflect public interest.
In return, the board must be sensitive to the deliberations of its lay members and should be careful not to dismiss their concerns without very careful consideration and discussion. The lay board member should always feel free to challenge any recommendation even where the weight of the general committee appears to be against them. A good board will therefore have a number of lay members whose views, when advanced, can and will impact on the tide of opinion.
In a nutshell,the role of the lay board member is to represent the public interest and more generally, the public voice. They are there to ensure that issues are considered from the public perspective and to make sure that the professional members of their committee understand the views that might be taken by people outside the profession.
Thinking of becoming a lay member?
- Though lay members may hold specified roles or have particular functional responsibilities, they are of course part of a unitary board and as such, are jointly accountable with other governing body members for all of the board decisions.
- It is important for lay members to seek feedback from other governing body members on how they see their performance to ensure their ongoing development and career progression.
- The boards of professional bodies are all different dependent on individual and local circumstances. This means that networking with lay members from other boards provides an important opportunity to learn from peers and to develop tools and resources collaboratively.
Being an independent lay board member can be a hugely rewarding experience and presents a real chance to make a lasting difference not just to a profession but also to those who experience its services.
Robert Pitts, Head of Services at PARN