The INTO, like many organisations, was formed in a time before the advent of technology. In order to ensure large organisations like them could make decisions on behalf of their members, a number of layers needed to be established so that leadership could ensure the message of its members could be heard. For example, the leadership would have a smaller group of district representatives, who in turn would meet with representatives of local groups who in turn would have local meetings. Furthermore, every individual part of the organisation (in our case, school) had a steward who could pass on the feelings of their staff at these local meetings. In theory, as long as the voices of the people at the bottom of the hierarchy were passed up along the way, the leadership could safely say they were speaking on behalf of the people. In theory, this is a good, democratic model.
I haven’t been to an INTO meeting in many years. I used to go. I have often thought about going back but I know there’s no point. Meetings are set up similarly to late night TV panel shows. There’s a panel at the top who speak for 80% of the time and the audience sit in theatre style and the rest of the time is divided out between them. The people who are listened to are generally succinct, loud and generally funny or engaging. They are also usually in positions of power (in its many guises) and often they have a number of years under their belt. Ultimately, what I’m trying to say (I am not succinct as you can see!) is that no matter how hard any organisation will try, this model is not an optimal way to hear the voices of all of its members.
Given that the Internet has been around for over 20 years, it is surprising how little it is used by organisations like the INTO to elicit the feelings of their members. It is deeply unlikely that there are any members of the INTO without access to the Internet and it is the perfect tool to engage members who don’t go or can’t go to meetings.
I think simple Internet tools such as polls and surveys could transform how the INTO speaks to its members in a very powerful way.
I propose that before every branch meeting that the CEC Rep would send out a simple survey asking their members for their feedback on whatever issues are on the agenda. This survey could be a combination of open and closed questions. The data could be used to get demographics of who believes in what depending on a number of factors: age, gender, etc. Before the meeting, this data could be made available and this would ensure that everyone would have time to think about their colleagues’ thoughts and discuss them at the meetings.
The meetings could also benefit from technology. Questions can be put to the panel via a messaging service for those who find it hard to stand up in front of a group of their colleagues. Minutes of meetings could be emailed to all branch members rather than those who show up. Small subgroups can be formed within meetings to discuss items and feed them back instantly to the panel.
Outside of meetings, when a bombshell is landed by the Department of Education or the Teaching Council or whoever, the INTO can easily poll all their members for very quick feedback. For example, let’s just say the Teaching Council decided in the future that in order to keep our Teaching Council membership, every year, teachers would have to engage in a number of approved CPD sessions (as if this would ever happen!?) the INTO could quickly send out a poll to members with a “yes” or “no” or “don’t know” option and within a couple of days, Sheila Nunan could say that x% of members are completely against this, if that were the case.
To move this up a level, there is absolutely no reason why when there’s a vote on something, that all members shouldn’t have the opportunity to vote on it. The most recent example of Droichead demonstrates why ordinary members are feeling more and more alienated. When everyone voted, all members voted and 89% voted against it. When less than 300 members got the opportunity to vote, somehow those against was down to 42%. There is really no reason why the INTO cannot use technology to get the votes of their members. Several countries elect their governments through electronic voting so it isn’t really that difficult.
Bringing the above a little further, by using digital polls and surveys, one can dig a little deeper into the votes. For example, in the Special Congress vote, any doubts as to the democracy of it could be wiped out if the data could be analysed. Questions like: what percentage of the delegates who voted engaged in the Droichead pilot? Questions like: how many of the delegates were teaching principals? or, how many delegates were NQTs in Special Classes? and so on. One could even ask members why they voted in a certain way to get even more data. These are extremely powerful tools that are easy to set up and can ultimately give everyone a sense of ownership of the union.
I’m not saying we should remove face to face meetings. I think they are important even if there’s a lot that can be changed in their physical structure but that’s for another day. What I am saying is that I believe that by using technology in this very simple way, the voices of INTO members would be better heard. It will democratise the union even more. It will engage members even more. It will give the leadership a much better view of its members. It’s a win-win for everyone so what’s stopping it from happening?