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Let’s Stop Electing Executives

Posted By Spencer Keys On March 7, 2015 @ 11:27 am In Editorial,Elections,News | Comments Disabled

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Probably as a result of the many candidate dropouts, the election has been a lot more dull at this stage of the campaign than expected and I am compelled to ask a 10,000 foot question:

What the hell are we doing here?

By that I mean, what are student union elections trying to achieve? Principally, voters are being asked to hire students to a) represent their views to the AMS, b) represent the AMS’s views to outside bodies, and c) manage aspects of the AMS.

These are, at best, conflicting mandates. At worst they’re dysfunctional. Sometimes the candidate whose values best align with the electorate is the least capable of taking action on those values because they are not capable of managing people or projects. Frequently, vital changes to the structure and workflow of the AMS don’t happen because it is important that a candidate who represents the opinions of students is elected to voice those perspectives, rather than a technocrat. Voters who believe they’re electing people to represent their views to the university or the government may find those executives are constrained by the views of the student council, which is also full of students who have been elected by their own constituencies.

Since August [2], Students Nova Scotia (in my opinion, the best student association in English Canada) has been engaged in an independent review of student association governance with “the view that student unions should hold themselves to the same standards of accountability and transparency that they ask of university and college administrators and governments.” Included in the questions it asked was:

  • How should student association governance bodies be composed and how should their members be selected?

  • How should student association executives, council/board members and staff members be accountable to one another and the student body?

  • How should student associations more meaningfully include members of underrepresented groups (women, visible minorities, students with disabilities, etc.) in decision-making?

Go read the whole report [3] because the issues it raises get to the same issues faced by the AMS. While it may seem navel-gazey to talk about governance during an election, there’s truly no better time. If you want a more effective student association, the report argues there should be a coherent chain of accountability – elect student council like a parliament (with parties ensuring they’re sufficiently diverse to attract the electorate*), then have the council appoint a president, representatives to external bodies, etc. so the people doing the job of representing students are aligned with both the AMS and the student body as a whole. Basically, the proposal is to stop electing executives, have their administrative duties done by hired students under supervision of the executive director, and have council members do all the outwardly facing duties.

These suggestions, in the main, make sense but are hardly a panacea for good student government. Nevertheless they identify the underlying tension of elections: what type of individual are we supposed to be voting for?

Just as the AMS has grown beyond its space, it has grown beyond its structure. A governance review has been promised, for several months, which may or may not happen. This is a good question for it to address.

*This isn’t the place for a discussion about slates, however a clarification is needed: I previously worked to end the slate system at the AMS but this is a different beast altogether. An organized and regulated party system that would get majority control is completely different from the previous system of councils without majorities and split executives.

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[1] vote for us: http://votermedia.org/ubc

[2] Since August: http://studentsns.ca/2014/08/nova-scotia-student-unions-launch-independent-democratic-governance-review/#more-2958

[3] whole report: http://studentsns.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/2015-02-20-Independent-Governance-Review-Final1.pdf

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