Being an officer is confusing and complex – and not all because of Covid-19

Madeleine Fox is Union Development Officer at the University of Nottingham Students’ Union 2020/21

Ria Bluck works for the University of Nottingham Students’ Union as a Research Practitioner.

When I successfully campaigned to be the Union Development Officer of the University of Nottingham Students’ Union, way back in March 2020, I didn’t fully understand my role would include being chair of trustees, being accountable for every small step I took and having to play political games whilst sending an email.

Yet the hardest thing for me to see was that my fellow officers, who took office in the midst of an organisational restructure, financial difficulties posed by the pandemic, and the impacts of COVID-19 on our members all at once, were all having exactly the same experience.

I sought advice from previous Nottingham SU Officers and current sabbaticals from other Unions which reinforced this simple truth:

No matter the context, no matter the position, being an officer is really difficult.

This is where the idea for our Officer Experience Project came from. The aim was to demonstrate the reality of what it means to be an officer and develop recommendations on how the union can better support its elected representatives.

All good here

Nottingham is, in many respects a fantastic students’ union, rated “very good” by NUS as recently as 2017. We have a highly engaged membership on both activities and sport, and enjoy an excellent relationship as a critical friend to the University of Nottingham.

There has also been a lot of progress in terms of recognising the need for further support for officers at UoNSU during my time in post. We have benefitted from additional resilience training, media coaching and bi-weekly counselling – have undertaken mentoring opportunities from some fantastic alumni, and are currently leading on reframing the leadership structures of our union so that the interests of students lie truly at the centre of the organisation’s structure.

But nowhere is perfect – and we’re lucky enough to have research staff at UoNSU that were able to help us uncover the realities of being an officer and determine what might help. Specifically, our staff member Ria Bluck made this happen and we’re very grateful.

The research

What it means to be and work as an officer is often a confused concept throughout the union, and in the eyes of the elected representatives themselves – particularly as they embark on their term and come into a staff team who are committed to supporting student leadership, but are also working on long-term projects and work-streams. Exploring how officers defined their individual duties and responsibilities only made matters more confusing, being not only dependent upon the role itself, but also on how opportunities within the role might be used to achieve personal campaign objectives.

With every Officer bringing their own individual views and ideals for the role, responsibilities are extensive, complex, and at times, conflicting in nature. At the core of the role itself though, was some conceptual consistency:

An officer’s duty at UoNSU, and arguably across the sector, is to be a representative force and leader for both students and the union in order to influence positive change.

Even this presented challenges for the team – in that representation within the role of an officer is multifaceted and can lead to mismatched expectations. And with that, the responsibility of being a public figure for 34,000+ students (the “face of the union”) is something they feel both overwhelmed by and underprepared for – particularly the level of criticism that comes with this.

Having their successes built around what they campaigned for as a student and being scrutinised on that as an officer, whether that be through formal means or otherwise, sometimes made it hard for the officer to distinguish their individual and professional identities. As a result, their sense of wellbeing and confidence in their ability often suffered – being true of both current and former officers.

In addition to this, the environment in which officers exist is relatively self-pressuring as they often look to others in their team, as well as those who occupied the roles previously, to determine and make sense of their own successes (or failures for that matter). In some instances, this had formed an unhealthy level of competitiveness for our officers, and seemed reinforced by high workload, accountability structures, instances of conflict, and their public availability.

Support for the politics?

While the opportunity to become a union representative has catapulted their personal and professional development, it is clear that organisational support for officers as political figures, particularly in respect of the effects of being the voice of the membership, has been felt to be low over the years – and that support in general, whilst excellent in places and always well-intentioned, is missing the mark at times.

The uniqueness of the officer role itself, and the variance of support needed within the team, means it is unlikely that one size will fit all. Having identified that our focus should be on improving the volume, appropriateness and accessibility of support for our elected representatives, we also noted the importance of placing priority on transition and handover periods more specifically – only months ago these officers were students, the very voice that they now represent in their day-to-day lives.

While our officers have structures in place to train and prepare them for such a steep learning curve, we must ask:

Is it enough? Is it right? And do we make it clear and easy to access?

Changing the culture

Following those findings, there’s now a range of recommendations that we’re working on urgently.

First, we’re keen to ensure a deeper understanding surrounding officer roles and responsibilities in the whole staff team​. It’s not enough just to “induct” new officers – we need to make sure the whole union understands what we do, how we do it and why it might be different to a staff role.

Next, we’re exploring workload support structures, to provide additional support where necessary. ​Some of that is universal – and some is about a particular officer role,m and some about the particular officer that wins. We’re not all amazing public speakers, we all are trustees, and so on.

We’re also looking to embed structures to support officers, ensuring they are proactive and remain appropriate in future years. That will include extensive team building and conflict resolution support​, group counselling opportunities​, media training​, support structures at a range of levels in the organisation​, officer mentoring programmes​ and leadership structures within the officer team.

We’ll also re-evaluate how we define success for our officers and ensure that the language and accountability structures we use are most appropriate. That will include ensuring that objective setting periods for SU staff complement those of the officers, that we ensure a smooth changeover from student to student leader/representative through set induction approaches and we explore alternative support structures in place throughout the sector for officers and student leaders.

The history, environment and structure of an officer team can be so vast from one organisation to another. Though we hope that this work will help develop a better understanding of officers more generally, we call upon the sector to conduct their own explorations and evaluate the effectiveness and appropriateness of their own support structures. Because ultimately it’s pretty hard for a democratic, mutual organisation to be successful if its student leaders aren’t effectively supported.

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