It’s not too late for lame ducks to leave a legacy

Nick Smith is a consultant specializing in governance

And now the end is near.

It’s been fun but you worry that the magic is gone. You’re sure they keep looking at others, someone newer. You’ve given them so much and it feels unfair but they want to move on. Even the ways you used to communicate feel closed to you. Is it all over?

This isn’t a sign to get back onto Tinder (why do so many people need a partner in crime anyway?) but many student officers are coming towards the end of their terms of office, worrying their link with students has been weakened and working out how to move on.

You’ve got a successor. The results bunting has been taken down by the venue staff member with responsibility for heavy metaphors. But… there’s still 3 months to go.

I’ll state my case of which I’m certain

Let’s start by agreeing the situation isn’t fair. SU officers have a tiny window of opportunity. You come in in July, and find your feet just as they are knocked out from beneath you by Welcome Week. You reorientate yourself in time for the capricious student body to choose your replacement then hand you a duck costume and a crutch. The student newspaper prefixes “outgoing” to your name and runs a piece on how great next year will be.

It’s not a reasonable situation but at this point there’s real opportunity for officers. No part of the year is “quiet” but summer tends to be where students are in exams and your time is less focused on member events and you might even have a bit more time on your hands.

One of the dangers at this stage though is that officers feel that they need to do… something. People are asking about what you are doing next and you wonder what will be left of you once you’re gone. We all care about a sense of legacy and achievement, but I’ve lost count of how many times SU officers have thrown out a project in their last few months.

Hastily created democracy reviews (at a time when student consultation is at a low) are a perennial concern as is trying to redefine the union’s relationship with the university or local council before someone new comes in.

There were times, I’m sure you knew, when I bit off more than I could chew

Reader, I was guilty of this. In my last few months as an activities office I basically tried to recreate community student volunteering in the town. The end result was a project with a fully formed logo but barely a handful of students involved. Who knew that the exam period wasn’t the right time for getting people to give up their time?

I was desperate to have a legacy but I did something badly rather than consolidating the work I had done. Officers quickly learn they often have to go slowly to create change for their members. This applies even in the summer and there are a few things that they can focus on here.

I’ve lived a life that’s full

Imagine that you could go back in time to when you started as an officer with the difference that you were armed with all the knowledge that you now possess. I don’t simply mean what OFS, TLA and PAT stand for, but how different university staff members tick, where decisions get made outside of meetings and what buttons to push with the VC.

There’s an opportunity right now to build the best handover for your successor ever. Not just a list of passwords and rules for feeding the office fish, but descriptions of what drives the university staff you need to influence.

Who loves chatting sustainability but who will only listen if you frame this around student choice? Who used to be an SU officer (more than you think) and who will need to be guided on union procedures? Which local councillors are allies and which can’t be moved by your requests?

I was filled with joy last year when Manchester Students’ Union told me that one of their sabbs had received a book from their predecessor that included just this information – forearming their officers. Don’t let your knowledge be lost.

As well as relationships you’ll have found a rhythm that works for you. Did you overload yourself just after welcome week and found that you crashed halfway into term 1? What’s your coping strategy for nerves?

Again, hand this over. People may not take your advice and different things work for different folks but it can’t hurt to share it.

I planned each chartered course

I accept that even a gold plated handover won’t use all of the time that you have outside of meetings with the university and students. There may be projects taken up by members of staff or officers in the next year that you can start by carefully planning what may be involved.

As you’ll know the different parts of the university machinery may move in time to each other but also at different rhythms. Can you pave the way in June for a meeting that will take place in September? Which budget needs to be spent now for something to be delivered in 3 months time?

You can advantage next year’s students by applying your knowledge and political leverage. The point here is to resist forcing something through that is not ready. You’re preparing the musical score but it’s someone else’s job to play it (if they want) and you may have to accept that if they do they’ll be the ones getting the applause.

A sabbatical officer year moves at breakneck speed. You’ll have done huge amounts of service for students – probably more than you realise. As we reach the end it’s worth keeping steady, finish well and do things your way.

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