Almost since APA's founding in 1892, members have debated the best way to govern the association. Now, APA is poised to move its governance systems to a 21st-century platform.

Last August, APA's Council of Representatives voted on a package of changes designed to make the association function more effectively and get more members involved in its governance. The council also voted to make significant changes to its own structure and to create a working group to flesh out two major restructuring proposals. Once the council decides which proposal to accept, APA's full membership must vote to amend the bylaws to codify it, plus a proposed change to the role of APA's Board of Directors.

"The role of governance is to both define policy and manage resources for the discipline of psychology and the profession of psychology," says psychologist Sandra L. Shullman, PhD, who chaired the Good Governance Project, the group that developed the proposals presented to the council. "Members should care about whether our governance is using our resources most effectively, whether we are addressing the most critical issues that affect psychology and psychologists, and whether we are doing so at the right time in the right way."

Enhancing effectiveness

The Good Governance Project has its roots in APA's strategic plan, which calls for maximizing APA's effectiveness. The project began with a thorough assessment. "One finding was a lot of dissatisfaction with the governance system," says Nancy Gordon Moore, PhD, MBA, APA's executive director of governance affairs. "People felt the system was slow and cumbersome, that it was confusing and difficult to understand and that it was difficult to find a way to enter the governance system."

Based on the full assessment, and with council's input, the Good Governance Project team developed seven proposals for change that were designed to address three overarching goals: increasing APA's nimbleness, aligning APA's activities with its strategic plan and increasing member engagement. Toward that end, the council accepted six of the proposals put forward at its meeting in August:

  • Enhancing technology use. APA will use technology to help members of governance and APA members in general communicate better and learn from each other. "This is a way to bring member voices into the decision-making process of governance," says Moore. APA will use technology to survey members more, for example, giving members an easier way to share their input.
  • Developing leaders. APA plans to create a leadership program that will help get members involved in governance. The goal is to develop leadership skills in newcomers and to ensure that current leaders continually enhance their own skills.
  • Creating a triage system. To improve the efficiency of decision-making, APA will develop a system to streamline the way information and items requiring decisions move through the governance process.
  • Refocusing the council's work. Under the current system, the council is often a reactive body whose primary role in policy decisions comes only at the very end of the process. The changes will enable the council to be much more engaged at the initial stages of policy development. "The council will now be focusing on a smaller number of major strategic issues and dealing with those in depth rather than the briefer review of many items that are activities in support of strategic objectives," says Moore. Plus, the council will use a strategy called mega-issue discussion — a structured way of learning about and discussing an issue — to help develop major policies or strategic directions for APA and the discipline as a whole.
  • Separating fiduciary roles. To eliminate duplication of efforts and further increase its engagement in policy, the council agreed to divide roles. While it will focus on policies related to the discipline, APA's Board of Directors will focus on policies related to running the association and managing relationships with external entities. The council also agreed to give the board responsibility for APA's budget for a three-year trial period. "The data collected showed that many on council felt it was nearly impossible for a body that meets twice a year with 175 people in it to really manage the finances of an organization as complicated and as large as APA, with its $120 million budget," says Moore.
  • Reconfiguring APA's Board of Directors. APA will also change the makeup of its board so that it is more representative of members. "Currently, members at large are elected from the council by the council," says Moore. Now those six members will be drawn from and elected by APA members. Two members of the council leadership team will join the board to serve as a bridge between the two groups. An early career psychologist must fill at least one seat, while the graduate student seat is preserved. Plus, the board will appoint a public member to bring specific expertise that may be outside of psychology to the group.

The council referred the seventh proposal for further development to an Implementation Work Group.

Restructuring the council

Now that the Good Governance Project's recommendation phase is complete, the Implementation Work Group will take up the next set of tasks. Chaired by Melba J.T. Vasquez, PhD, a past president of APA, and co-chaired by William Strickland, PhD, a current member of the Board of Directors, the group will develop a plan for putting all the agreed-upon changes into practice.

The council also directed the Implementation Work Group to flesh out two variants of a smaller council, both of which use a constituent-based model composed of one seat for each APA division and state, provincial and territorial psychological association, plus an additional 20 to 25 seats.

In the model proposed by the Good Governance Project team, those seats would go to affiliated organizations with strong interests in APA policies. Council members themselves proposed a second model that would allocate the additional 20 to 25 seats to the "pillars" of APA's mission — science, practice, education, human welfare, health and possibly advocacy — while also taking into account diversity in demographics, career level and expertise. In both proposals, a leadership team would manage work flow.

To develop possible alternative structures, the Good Governance Project team learned from the experiences of other membership groups similar to APA that had already made big changes, including the American Geophysical Union and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, formerly known as the American Dietetic Association.

About a decade ago, the academy decided to divide the labor of its governance bodies and make its board responsible for organizational issues and its house of delegates responsible for issues affecting the discipline. The American Geophysical Union did something similar.

"It was extraordinarily helpful to us to know that big organizations with systems similar to ours could change and come out the other side liking the changes much better than the old system," says Moore.

Once the details are filled in, the council will vote on the proposals. APA members must then vote to amend the bylaws to allow the reconfiguration of the council and the Board of Directors. Members may eventually have to vote to make the transfer of fiscal authority permanent after the three-year trial period.

For Vasquez, these changes represent an exciting new chapter in APA's history — one that will prepare the association for the future.

"The world has undergone tremendous changes since APA's current structure was put in place in the mid-1940s," she says. "A more nimble, streamlined organization will be better positioned to respond to changing needs in psychology and to use resources strategically."

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.