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RIBA's chief executive should consider a vow of public silence

The relationship between RIBA executive and elected should never be one of tail wagging dog, writes Paul Finch

We wish Stephen Hodder well as he begins his RIBA presidency, and note the very effective way that Angela Brady played the institute’s cards on the international as well as the domestic scene, always a positive presence determined to improve, promote and, if necessary, protest.

When a new presidency begins, I always think about the relationship between incoming governments and the Cabinet Secretary. Often new to the task or to the role, a Prime Minister and his ministers are faced with the accumulated knowledge and experience of the mandarin world, often believing (wrongly) that they will have to fight them to get their way.

In reality the role of the executive is to serve but also to advise and warn. Governments always assume their pet ideas are brilliant and it is a good thing that there are people who can cast a sceptical eye over the deluded and the hare-brained. If only Gordon ‘Prudence’ Brown had paid attention to his advisers, he might have saved the country billions of pounds by not selling our gold reserves at a knock-down price.

Things are not measured in billions at Portland Place, but there are parallels with Whitehall that deserve on occasion to be remembered. For one thing, the RIBA is a membership organisation based on democratic principles and the election of most officers. It is not, repeat not, a business or a trade union, even though it owns a business and speaks with a representative voice. The RIBA is a learned society and a charity, controlled by its own members and nobody else, provided it acts within its charter, policed by the Privy Council.

It is not the function of the bureaucrats to control or represent the institute, however grand their titles may be. They are servants of the members. As with Whitehall’s Sir Humphreys, this does not always sit well with them. Many presidents have had run-ins with their equivalent of the Permanent Secretary. One threatened to resign after a week in office when the mandarin tried to tell him what he should be doing. The threat was effective. Another president began disciplinary action against a different mandarin who had refused to show him certain financial documents on the ground that they were operational matters, which the elected president was not entitled to see. The president won.

For better or worse, the president should always win, because chief executives are not elected as leaders of the profession. They are there as functionaries - important, but nevertheless functionaries. A former institute vice-president told me he was surprised to receive an invitation for this week’s passing of the presidential baton from Brady to Hodder not from the president but from the chief executive, as though it were his show. It is not his show any more than the building is his show or the membership fees are his to spend. It is the president’s and the members’ show.

The autocratic behaviour of the incumbent mandarin in closing down the RIBA Trust (don’t bother emailing to say it still exists, it doesn’t really) was extraordinary. And without going into any details, it is clear that the relationship between president and chief officer for the past four years has been far from happy, and on occasion downright hostile.

Stephen Hodder is a good architect with plenty of experience of business institutions and life. He needs to be the person who speaks to media and at events. If he is not available, then it should be a relevant vice-president or council member. The chief executive should consider a vow of public silence for the foreseeable future. Perhaps it could be an addendum to his job description - if he has one.

Readers' comments (3)

  • Yasmin Shariff

    Paul Finch has cut to the core. Instead of facilitating members the RIBA has become autocratic and a gatekeeper. The Doric Club had to fight tooth and nail to get together at Portland Place and as for RIBA-USA the Memorandum of Agreement has become a farce. Council has not even been permitted to hold its own dinner club!

    Democracy at the RIBA is Orwellian with some Council members on the Board are more equal than others. Elected Council members not on the Board have found it virtually impossible to represent members and had to resort to putting Motions to Council.

    Stephen is a good architect with a business brain and we will need his skills and commitment to turn around an Institute that has been running a deficit budget and frustrates its members initiatives rather than facilitating them.

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  • That seems to be a pretty fair summary of what goes on, my impression is that Portland Place is being run for the benefit of the Senior Executives and not the membership. Seems to be a theme in Portland Place!

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  • Paul's words are spookily similar to those I've been testing around the Institute for a couple of years now, and coincided well with my first Council meeting. Shame I didn't read the piece first!

    Chairing Conservation Group has been the most frustrating time in my life, and other PPC members have similar tales of their work being bowdlerised and sidelined, if not ignored.

    We can adjust things here and there, but I'm now convinced an NPPF style bonfire of the Rules is required, reducing them to a couple of pages of plain English alongside 'guidance notes' setting out the job descriptions of senior executives, their powers and limits, the checks and balances that are in place, and a transparent sequence of actions that lead from Members' needs to Policy and meaningful 'outreach'. There is even a chance that we will recover the link between Members and their Institute, making their subs more visibly worth paying...

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