A case for greater democracy in the SGD

Voting handsCan the SGD truly claim to be a democratic organisation?

I am a member of the Society of Garden Designers (SGD), British Association of Landscape Industries (BALI) and the Landscape Institute (LI). Of the three, I had always considered the LI to be the stuffiest, the least likely to embrace real change. Which is why last night’s EGM for the Landscape Institute represents a remarkable sea change. At a landmark meeting, members voted to make a number of changes to rules governing the Institute, including the Royal Charter, its regulations and bylaws. In the words of Merrick Denton-Thompson (the incoming president, as of last week):

The results of the EGM now mean the LI is at the forefront of modern, progressive, inclusive and democratic professional bodies.
The changes mean those with a stake in the organisation’s future have a say in it. Licentiate and academic members will now have voting rights and a seat on the Board; experienced practitioners will now have a route to Chartership; those working in landscape and related fields will be able to join as non-chartered members; our disciplinary processes now represent best practice across the sector; the trigger for members calling an EGM is now in line with similar bodies; and our election and voting systems have been simplified to allow far greater online participation. All of the changes mean we can now focus on growing membership and representing the increasingly diverse range interests and practice that makes up the modern landscape world.”

As Merrick suggests there, the changes also include routes for experienced practitioners to full membership, which the SGD has long had. However, the rest of the proposals put the LI clearly at the front of the pack in terms of democracy – they include changes to allow online voting and a more democratic process as well as greater representation.

This is a huge achievement, but is not the work of one president. It builds on the progress made by a reform-minded group of members, as well as the last two presidents – Sue Illman and Noel Farrar, who were both hugely energetic and forward thinking and represents a major turnaround in mindset for the Institute.

I have long argued that the SGD should be more democratic in the way it is organised. The governing council is made up of nine people who are elected from roughly two hundred members who are eligible to vote, but represent the interests of around 1400 people in total. So only around 14% of the membership are allowed to vote. There has been some move to get this changed, principally coming from those that don’t currently have the vote, but the case has not yet been put sufficiently strongly to convince the registered members to change the status quo.

At the very least, there should be representatives on council of the interests of non-registered members, but I actually think there is a strong argument for much greater reform. Some of the reasoning I have heard put forward by registered members – that other grades of membership would dilute the standard needed for qualification once they had the vote – at best sound like restrictive practice and at worst like the sort of arguments used against the suffragettes.

The SGD is still a vibrant and influential organisation. However, if it doesn’t reform, it will find itself becoming increasingly detached from the real world and less relevant. A bit like the Landscape Institute was a few years ago.

Is that a whiff of revolution I smell?

9 responses on “A case for greater democracy in the SGD

  1. Peter Thurman

    Great Blog! I know many good and long-standing garden designers that have been rejected for full membership by the SGD . Strangely, all of them make a good living, but most, if not all, are not household “names” or designed show gardens. I also know quite a few designers that I am surprised to find have been accepted. I have taught Garden Design since 1983 – initially at The Inchbald and now [via numerous establishments] at the LCGD. One of my suggestions to graduates throughout this time is that you don’t have to “run with the pack”. In fact that can be quite a benefit. Last time I looked at it [following a tearful call from a designer and ex student] was that the membership selection process for the SGD is deeply flawed.

    1. John Wyer Post author

      Hi Peter – and thanks for your comment. The drive of what I was arguing for here is more democracy in terms of all members of the Society having representation rather than changing the criteria for becoming registered. A few years ago I would agree with you that the criteria for registered membership were in a bit of a mess, but I know that quite a bit of work has been done on this since about 2013 by the Society (particularly by Paul Hensey). I don’t have direct experience of this recently, but my sense is that it is much better than it was. And I am certainly not arguing for not joining the Society – I think it is a valuable organisation. My view is that it just needs to be more representative of its wider membership and less restrictive in its approach to governance.

      1. Peter Thurman

        Thanks for the reply John. Yes, the Society is a valuable organisation. So, is it going to formally ask those who applied and were turned down during the ‘messy’ years [which was quite a few years] to re-apply? Only kidding, that would be a right pain. Wouldn’t it?

    2. paul hensey

      The awarding of SGD Membership status to a designer is not a spectator sport. In much the same way that the perception of why the RHS might decide to award a Gold medal, or not, to a casual observer the decision is not always transparent or evident based on the public presence of a candidate. If there is value in what is being awarded then there has to be trust that the assessment process is robust and consistent.
      The criteria for SGD Membership are clear and transparent and the standard of attainment is rigorously defended and upheld by the Society. We maintain an electronic record of all submissions solely for the purpose of ensuring that a pass yesterday is to the same standard as a pass today and will be tomorrow. The failure of applicants is not usually a symptom of their inability to design, but of one to communicate. Like a driving test, on the day, you are required to perform and demonstrate both control of and respect for the assessment criteria. You may not naturally drive in that style and following a successful assessment, are free to choose how you conduct yourself and the rigour you apply. If a designer can prove their skill in the art of garden design, through the submission of 3 projects, then they stand a very good chance of attaining Registered Membership.
      We do not adjudicate on the style or aesthetics of a garden, much like the RHS, if the presented project is a competent response to the brief, has been detailed with intelligence and planted with skill, it is likely to pass. A project need not be pretty, or large or complex. Rather “Hero” projects often demonstrate both skill and failings in equal measure.
      The SGD do not impose a style of documentation, presentation or how a designer might choose to run their business. The process is constantly being reviewed and improved to reflect both technology, professional practice and feedback from candidates.
      We may have flaws but as with all reports after an event, it is the bad news stories that get the attention. Any assessment system must have failure as well as success, otherwise there is no value in the process or what it seeks to uphold.
      A professional body is not for everybody, but those who have made the effort have every opportunity to enjoy the benefits that Membership offers. Perhaps the most important of these is a sense of acknowledgement and belonging to a wider network of like minded people. Without reiterating the points raised by John, the Society has acknowledged the feeling of disenfranchisement felt by its majority members and is working towards addressing this.
      I will pin my colours to the democratic camp. I am in favour of everything John has raised, and more. How and what the Society does to embrace the desires of its members is of course a matter for those members. I, and any Council member welcome any opportunity to engage and represent the ideas and ambitions of our members, of any level.

      Paul Hensey, FSGD
      Vice Chair Society Garden Designers
      Chair Adjudication Society Garden Designers

  2. Amanda Davey

    This is extremely interesting stuff. All member organisations suffer when the members are made the least relevant part of the proceedings, either future or current members. The history of reform at the Landscape Institute is tied to the fight for the archive that was under profound threat in 2008 and which triggered a flurry of EGM’s and the setting up of the Reform Group. After many years of swearing ever less gently at the mention of our own Institute, it became of paramount importance to fight to get it back on track before it lost ground completely through lack of relevance to the membership. I fear that much of this is driven by the needs of a charitable organisation to ignore the needs of the members in preference to the needs of education. This can create a huge imbalance between what is expected and what is ‘provided’. The criteria for selection gets tangled up in this and a bit of self-protection muddies the waters. It has taken eight years for the real benefits of this battle to be felt for the LI and this needs bearing in mind for the SGD in attempts at reform. It takes a sustained effort from a group that can suffer from quite a degree of opposition, but it is so worth doing. There are some unsung heroes behind these changes.

    1. John Wyer Post author

      …Some of whom are also members of the SGD, I think. You are right of course about the length of time it takes to negotiate this – or indeed any change. And what is more, the imbalance is greater in the SGD than was the case in the LI, although the SGD is a much more vibrant organisation today than the LI was five to ten years ago. My concern is that if we do not reform, then it can only be bad for the Society in the longer term.

  3. Patricia Fox

    Great blog John, sounds like excting stuff for the LI which is great, and feel sure will be a great imporovement all round. Totally sympathise with comments re SGD and for sure some reform / shakeup is perhaps long overdue. So much has been done, it just seems to be a very difficult clunky machine to bring up to date. I know Phillipa (SGD chair ) has been trying so hard to cause a bit of a revolution, maybe the committee needs some fresh blood to drive some well needed changes through? And no I’m not offering too busy, but maybe in a few years.

  4. Tim Waterman

    Hi John, I’m positively affected by the changes – as an academic member of the LI, I finally have the right to vote! I think, rather than working on the SGD’s democracy, we should be working on a merger between the LI and the SGD. ‘Stuffy’ landscape architects need the vigour and flash of garden designers. More than that, in the years ahead (post-Brexit) we must try to pull together the most unified voice for landscape that we can. The National Trust’s proactive stance on agriculture is just one example that we can pull behind. My most recent column for Landscape calls for more unity between the LI and the SGD (and urban designers too). http://www.landscapethejournal.org/A-word—Unity

    1. John Wyer Post author

      Hi Tim – Noel Farrer has been saying the same to me recently. I would really like to see the SGD and LI work more closely together. I have been a landscape architect working as both a garden designer and LA for 35 years and for many of these years felt that many of my LA colleagues looked down their noses at garden designers (some still do I think). However, I think the SGD could benefit from the maturity and professionalism of the LI and (as you say) the LAs could do with the injection of vigour and style that they might get from Garden Designers. This is already happening to some extent – see my earlier post entitled ‘Why do developers think that garden designers are sexier than landscape architects?’. Apart from that, I also agree with you that a more unified voice would benefit both parties and might help us to regain some of the Urban Realm that we have lost to architects and others. I think I would stop short of a merger. Firstly because I think it would meet such strong opposition from within the Society that it would end up as a distraction to the benefits of closer collaboration. But secondly because at the moment, I think the SGD feels it would end up being swallowed up, subsumed into the LI. Let’s have a debate about it by all means, but not to the detriment of closer collaboration.

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