Lay Members: Expert Witness or General Representative?

Over the last few years, PARN research has identified1 a notable shift towards the engagement of lay members on advisory and disciplinary panels, and on governing boards. Indeed, today around 25% of all professional body boards have some lay representation and it seems likely this figure would be much higher if we examined all panels and advisory groups.

This has been such a significant shift that it has perhaps served to eclipse some earlier concerns and reservations about ‘bringing in the outside view’. What was it that led the UK Intellectual Property

HROffice to recommend the abolition of lay members on the Copyright Tribunal back in 2009. for example?

Perhaps one of the key arguments for using lay members on committees and panels has always been that they can represent a wider public view. However, there is another view that suggests that lay members bring an expert eye in a specialist area, often an area not readily accessible to the average practitioner member. There clearly is considerable contradiction between these two positions and they are not easily reconciled.

We can, of course, try and gloss over the issue, perhaps by insisting that lay members bring both attributes to the boardroom table. But is it really  possible for the average lay members, no matter how experienced, to be both a general representative and a specialist expert witness at the same time?

PARN has long promoted the benefits that lay members can bring to any board, most usually advancing the idea that lay member provision allows some control over an otherwise elected board profile. In this way, lay members can fill non-practitioner roles that would not come easy to the average professional body member.

There will always be veterinary surgeons, for example, who over the years get quite accomplished at running the finances of their practice – surely we are not suggesting this means they are a useful substitute for a professional accountant (any more than the opposite could append!).  Lay members and appointed members allow the flexibility to fill the important gaps – but clearly in doing so we are talking about expert witnesses and not general representatives.

So what of the voice of the ordinary person in the street? Is there also a role, or is there a gap between the broad political rhetoric of the public voice and the technical specificity of a committee guiding professional practice?   Such considerations have prompted some to question the validity of giving non practitioner voices an equal weight to qualified professionals.

We therefore sometimes see hybrid status conferred upon lay members: they are perhaps not given a board vote, or are excluded from large parts of board meetings, increasing the already present risk of isolation often experienced by lay members. We would suggest that if you want to attract good lay members who will stay for a useful length of time, then it is essential to give them a mechanism that lets them know they are making a difference – and that usually means having a vote.

There has been much in the press recently about the significant value lay members bring to industrial tribunals, and to health services in particular, but this praise and recognition is by no means universal and many not for profit subsectors continue to blinker their view on lay members – for good or bad. The unresolved dichotomy between expert witness and general representative is in part to blame here -the jury has yet to decide where lay members’ true value lies.

1  PARN Financial Benchmarking Reports and Professional Body Benchmarking Reports between 2009 and 2015

Robert Pitts, Head of Services at PARN

Interested in trying your hand at being a lay member? We have a lay member register where you can find the right lay position for you. Find out more here or email [email protected].

Watch our video on lay membership here!

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