SU byelaws? Much camus about nothing

When I was between jobs many years ago, I made use of my local library to try and fill the gaps in reading caused by having just completed an English Literature BA.

I’d spent 3 years realising all the things I hadn’t read because I was too busy with books and picked up a copy of Camus’ The Plague.

My memory of it is hazy at best but I’m almost certain that there’s no reference to byelaws within it (erudite Wonkhe readers will no doubt correct me). While it is useful being able to quote procedure and precedents in those times that are not as unprecedented as today, guidance on writing SU byelaws may seem out of place in the era of Covid-19.

45 minutes into a recent Trustee Board, a member firmly asked if we could “Talk about something other than Coronavirus” and that feeling to keep some sense of normality, of business as usual, is something I can definitely recognise five weeks into lockdown.

There will be some democracy staff in SUs who are working at home, using this opportunity to tame the democratic behemoth that is their rules and for them in particular I offer this recent guidance.

Flavour and following

Whatever consultancy I deliver for an SU I always ask for copies of their byelaws. Articles and Constitutions are predictable, reliable and boring on the whole. There are template documents of these for a reason. They are focused on the general provisions of the Charity Commission rather than the individuality of each union.

It is within the byelaws that you get the character of each union – what makes them unique. The Executive membership for one includes campus officers, for others it is Liberation representatives; commuter students on a third and competitive sport on a fourth. You can get a lot of a union’s flavour from just a few sentences.

Before embarking on a review of byelaws it is worth being clear what are the essential characteristics of your union. Perhaps the most fundamental of these is about where it sits on a dichotomy of following its leaders and following its rules. Some unions’ cultures elect student leaders and broadly expect them to make decisions with occasional checks and balances in committees and councils.

Others are more explicit in their rules about what students and their leaders are expected to do, stipulating precise procedures and timescales for what should happen: “Student Councils must be held on the 2nd and 5th weeks of term” or “The Executive Committee will blog at least every 2 weeks for at least 800 words”. I’m not making a moral assertion here over which is right, but if your student members find rules stifling rather than useful then you may want to consider your tone and approach.

Oversight not composite

In a major test of our relationship my boyfriend asked me to give him a quarantine haircut last week. Our mortgage agreement is still intact, mainly because I only did a small trim around the most awkward edges.

No doubt when the population returns to the streets there will be many of us who need to seek professional help from barbers & hairdressers to address the many small, well-meaning prunings that have gone wrong.

Plenty of union byelaws have lost their way because they are the product of lots of small, uncoordinated changes over the years. This is natural, of course – if last month’s issue with a society AGM is what caused Student Council a problem, why look at anything else?

The problem is that over the course of several years it all becomes slightly disjointed and what you have is not a set of byelaws, but a collection of composite thoughts stuck together. It is often better to start from scratch and rewrite whole sections with a single sense of purpose than try and tackle one bit at a time.

Even in something as potentially dry as a set of byelaws you can pick up an author’s voice and while many people may want to give ideas, I’d suggest a single person to draft the finished document.

Brave new world?

Plenty of people are speculating on whether we step out of the pandemic into a ‘new normal’, an old routine or something else altogether. I still don’t like video conferences and would prefer to be next to a Trustee Chair not texting them on WhatsApp, but I can’t deny that ways of being that I have previously found uncomfortable or undesirable aren’t as bad as I thought they were going to be.

New byelaws are an opportunity for a Union to set a new tone with its members, feel fresher and reset the way it has always been. Maybe my first trip to the barbers will leave me looking the same as I have for the past few years or maybe I’ll be sporting a mullet – but I will have the option to do something different when hiding those tentative quarantine cuts.

Nick’s guidance on SU byelaws is available here.

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