Wednesday, September 18, 2013

RSPB.......worthy , but arrogant?

Over the last two-three weeks I've had ample opportunity to discuss at leisure a whole host of topics with friends and colleagues. Many were touched on less comprehensively whilst I was at the BirdFair in August.
Most issues were bird or conservation related, some linked to politics, holidays, how friends were faring and so on. However, all conversations included a "What the hell is the RSPB up to" or similar comment. Oblique comments and questions have been raised elsewhere, but that's about as far as things have gone.

Setting aside logos, TV adverts, hedgehog houses and revised magazine titles, what is the RSPB up to? It's not very clear , although we're told all will be revealed in due course, perhaps at the AGM on the 12th October? Of more interest to me is what the Society is actively pursuing based on its core values. Rumours suggest changes are on the way, but why all the delay and confusion ?  I suspect that if a current member was asked what priorities the Society is pursuing they wouldn't be able to list any other than some general reference to climate change. Sadly the Society appears to have lost the faith and trust of many and its credibility is seriously under siege.  Thankfully, its membership still remains loyal out of a sense of duty as opposed to continuing satisfaction, but this may yet change.

Most people cite their dissatisfaction with the Society's inability to "stand up for things", it  "no longer having any teeth" and accepting too easily the views of those opposing conservation.  I'm not sure all of the above is entirely true, but I can easily identify with the sentiments. However, the Society has a lot of very capable staff within its ranks who, I am sure, are equally frustrated by the current lack of support by Government for conservation, all of which spills over and affects the positioning of the RSPB.  But shouldn't this be shared with the membership and act as a clarion call to action? And I mean a clarion call, not some effete request!! This lack of a relationship with its members is a worry. Unless demanded,  actions are not openly displayed or discussed, there is no longer a feeling of being part of an organization, simply a request for support and now "we'll do the rest".  Not the best recipe for all out allegiance in my view.  Despite endless RSPB Blogs, which usually outline emergent government policies or similar, as opposed to explaining why RSPB is acting as it does, there is clearly a significant proportion of the membership who feel disenfranchised and feel they are deserving of more open and honest explanation of what is happening. I can also understand an RSPB reaction that says " what else can we do?".

Uhm!  Well I know that the RSPB has always hugely valued its membership, so this is not a situation to be ignored. Clearly the problem lies with communication as opposed to the actual content of the Society's stance on various matters.  A simple remedy might be a more open declaration of policy objectives within its overall strategy ( sexed up a bit of course! ), a list of things to be focussed on during the year following and some form of review in terms of what was achieved or lost. Sharing the accompanying frustrations or celebrating the successes is what many people want from "their" organization, not some stuffy plastic update. Tell it as it is with all the forensic disclosures involved! It's certainly not always obvious what the Society feels its priorities to be, which should be an obvious thing to rectify. Within what I hope will be a burgeoning membership in response to the current advertising there will be some who will arrive with "expectations" of what they expect "their society" to address.  Not something that I suggest is all that obvious or easily accessed in the "we know best" approach accompanied, usually, by fine words but limited explanation.

In the 1980's it was customary for RSPB to hold an annual, internal conference for all staff directly associated with conservation planning activities.  Held over a couple of days or so lectures and discussions were organized dealing with the most important issues in hand at the time.  On one occasion an evening debate was held, following a similar format to those organized by the Oxford Union with the motion, " RSPB....worthy , but arrogant".  I seem to remember most of those present considered such to be true. Of course there was much to celebrate in those years, which undoubtedly underpinned the general feelings of confidence.  Research results, reserve acquisitions, site designation, repeated successes with policies being submitted for Local and National Plans and so on. But, sadly, I'm not sure the old culture has ameliorated and the current situation does seem to be somewhat redolent of the past at a time when greater transparency and collectivism is needed.

Nonetheless I don't believe there is anything sinister or of a deliberately exclusive nature in the current relationship, simply that the approach is wrong and needs revising in order to become more user friendly and more open.  Avoiding it will invite problems from within the community the RSPB is now so keen to attract.

Finally, I read with interest the report referred to by Martin Harper ( Director of Conservation, RSPB ) in a recent Blog (  Learning to talk....about nature. ).  The report, produced by the Green Alliance, sets out the views of various conservation organizations on how they feel politicians have performed over the past three years.  It occurs to me this is an approach which might usefully be turned on the conservation organizations themselves, except, in the RSPB's case it wouldn't be easy to determine precisely what

  • its overall strategy was for a given time period
  • its aims and objectives were for the year ahead
Following on from all this it would be difficult to decide how successful or otherwise the Society had been in its endeavours.  Is this an approach that should be considered for future, I wonder, by both us and the Society itself?

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