AVMA mulls governance overhaul

Calls to upend entrenched bureaucracy surface at House session

July 26, 2011 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) plans to spend an estimated $45,000 on a task force assigned to review how the national trade organization can better govern itself and represent its 81,600 members. 

The charge came via a resolution passed during the House of Delegates meeting, held July 14-15 in St. Louis. The move reflects long-held criticisms that the association operates in a vacuum, directed by a 16-member Executive Board despite the existence of a House of Delegates, the association’s primary policy-making body with representatives from every state and a host of territorial and allied organizations.

Correction: The House now represents every state except for New Jersey. In an unprecedented move reflecting discontent with how the House operates, the New Jersey Veterinary Medical Association (NJVMA) announced that it no longer plans to send delegates to future House meetings. Leaders in the state question the body’s role and relevance.

Heavy with pomp and circumstance, critics of the House argue that its meetings — held every January and July — reflect a social gathering, limiting real work to a few of hours at the end of a two-day session. With Executive Board members regularly making policy in between House meetings, leaders from New Jersey contend that the 136-member House is a “neutered” organization.

Pushing a resolution calling for the AVMA to take a hard look at how the House operates, Dr. Mark Helfat, New Jersey’s former alternate delegate who now serves on the Executive Board, addressed his colleagues.

“Now, if we can admit that our system of governance needs improvement, we must choose our course of action. Do we just keep plugging away under the same system? Do we give up? Or, as I would strongly recommend, do we regroup, study our faults and formulate a new approach which will get us back on track?”

Ultimately, the resolution from New Jersey to study whether the House, via cost-benefit analysis, is worth saving was voted down in favor of the Executive Board’s version, calling for a thorough examination of the AVMA’s entire governance system, a structure that's existed for decades.

Some delegates at the meeting openly pondered why the Executive Board chose to submit a resolution; the entity has the power to form and fund a task force without the House’s go-ahead. By contrast, the House can only “recommend” the creation of a task force; it needs the Executive Board’s final go-ahead.

And there’s the rub. The 16-member Executive Board meets six times a year to act on administrative and fiduciary duties but makes policy decisions as well, sometimes stepping on the toes of delegates. One recent example was a move last November to amend the Veterinarian’s Oath, a pledge recited each year by thousands of new graduates.

That didn’t sit well with House members, who lamented that the delegation should have been consulted on such a matter. In response, the House took action during the July meeting to strip the Executive board of its sole power to tinker with the oath — which goes up for review every five years — without oversight from delegates. (Two other proposed bylaws amendments that went further to challenge the Executive Board’s authority did not pass. One proposed bylaws amendment failed by vote while the other was withdrawn by the Utah Veterinary Medical Association, which submitted it.)

The power struggle aside, AVMA members and some delegates have aired criticisms concerning a lack of representation tied to the association’s governing processes. Members of the Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession and owner of the VIN News Service, have expressed feelings that their concerns are lost within the bureaucracy of the large, political organization.  

The disconnect between the AVMA and its members — whether perceived or real — is highlighted in the recently released AVMA 20/20 Vision Commission report. Sanctioned by AVMA leaders, it hinted that an overhaul of the association’s governance infrastructure might be necessary, mainly to foster greater democracy and transparency.

It's also an impetus for the Executive Board’s resolution calling for the self-study. A rough outline of the task force designed to study AVMA governance includes an 11-member body comprised of veterinarians and non-veterinarians who have not yet been named. The group will hold three face-to-face meetings along with phone conferencing. The topic of their talks likely will revolve around ideas expressed in the 20/20 report, which explores the merits of competency-based representation versus constituency-based representation. The House, made up of delegates, represents the latter.

“Competency-based governance is necessary for credibility and favors participants that are most knowledgeable and fair. On the other hand, constituency-based governance helps to ensure that broad perspectives and multiple special interests are part of policy development and decision-making," the report says.  

Some veterinarians
on VIN have expressed taking constituency-based governing a step further, asking that the AVMA reach out to individual members via a balloting process that would allow them to directly impact how the association acts on major issues.

How the AVMA ultimately will revamp its governance structure is unknown, but change appears to be imminent given that newer generations of veterinarians appear less apt to leave their work and families to volunteer for the national association. "There is a distinct and likely possibility that the (current) governance system will not be compatible or conducive to the next generation," the 20/20 report says.

On the House floor, Connecticut's alternate delegate Dr. Arnold Goldman spoke to the disconnect: "We know in our hearts that changing governance is required. We aspire to a more democratic organization."


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