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Optometry Australia holds firm on "confidential" membership number

31/07/2019By Callum Glennen
Optometry Australia (OA) has defended its decision to keep its precise membership number a secret, following Insight’s investigation into transparency and governance practices at the peak industry body.

CEO Ms Lyn Brodie continues to keep the organisation’s exact membership figure off the public record, and requests for specific membership figures to OA president and board chairman Mr Darrell Baker also remain unfulfilled.

Rather than reveal its membership number, much like many of Australia’s other health-related organisations choose to do, OA asks that members undertake their own estimation by visiting the Optometry Board of Australia’s (OBA) website and use a percentage to calculate a figure based on the current number of registrants.

To clarify this practice, Insight sought comment from Baker as to whether the decision to withhold the official membership number is a formally endorsed board policy or the choice of OA staff.

Baker did not clarify the issue and instead told Insight that Brodie had supplied sufficient information to calculate a membership number, as well as the reasoning behind the decision.

“As such, the Optometry Australia board does not see any need to answer your questions. We fully support our CEO, Ms Brodie,” Baker wrote.

This is despite comparing a percentage against figures published on a separate party’s website not being the same as providing the association’s actual paid membership base.

Secret membership

The subject of OA’s membership number initially arose following a routine request in February for a news report in which OA’s membership tally was relevant. Ms Kerry I’Anson, general manager of marketing and communications at OA, advised that “membership numbers are confidential”.

Kerry I
Kerry I
"Membership numbers are confidential"
Kerry I'Anson, OA

When Insight brought the issue to Brodie and questioned why OA’s actual membership could not be provided, she advised: “Member numbers are not a secret – but a daily moving feast!”

Brodie claims this is due to varying membership categories and renewal periods between OA’s state bodies, as well as a time lag in systems and processing.

However, at the time, and despite denying secrecy, Brodie still refused to reveal a specific membership number, even though the organisation had made the information a matter of public record in the past.

Instead, she stated that OA publicly represents a percentage of Australia’s board-registered optometrists, which is calculated annually. Brodie claims this figure is currently 82.5%. The OBA publishes a detailed statistical breakdown of registered practitioners every three months.

Confidentiality even surrounds the membership figure used for OA's 2017- 2018 Annual Report, published last October, which both Brodie and Baker also would not divulge. The annual report includes a comprehensive breakdown of membership demographics that would only be possible with an accurate figure for the organisation’s total membership.

OA’s 2017–2018 Annual Report also included a page with a detailed breakdown of the total number of OBA-registered optometrists. However, OA’s own membership figure was not included.

Background reading: Optometry Australia membership "Confidential"

Brodie admitted that OA calculates a membership number annually for internal comparison, explaining: “We work our calculations post-renewal period October, comparing back to OBA data in June."

Brodie supplied December 2018 OBA data to suggest that OA’s membership was 4,542 (5,506 registrants x 82.5%), however, in explaining why she would not provide OA’s actual paid membership figure, Brodie claimed the exact number is ultimately "meaningless".

“When I speak to government or other stakeholders, giving them a number is meaningless – what they want to know is the percentage of optometrists we represent. Even our members would find a number meaningless,” Brodie said.

Insight sought clarification on whether Brodie’s comment reflected the position of the board and Baker advised she has the board’s full support.

OA’s ‘confidential’ approach can be compared to a number of other Australian health and not-for-profit organisations. When undertaking research in order to compare OA’s stance, 15 similar health bodies (see chart below) either recorded a membership figure on their website, in their annual reports or freely provided the information to Insight upon request in a transparent manner without debate.

Internal inconsistencies

OA’s policy of maintaining confidentiality over its membership numbers is inconsistent with its state bodies. The 2018 South Australian President’s Report, which is freely available on OA’s recently redesigned website, points to specific membership numbers as an area of concern.

Lyn Brodie
Lyn Brodie
"Even our members would find a [membership] number meaningless"
Lyn Brodie, OA

“Another year has come and gone and I’m proud of the strong and progressive professional association I’m part of. We have spent the year pursuing significant projects, which will impact both current and future optometrists in South Australia,” SA president Mr Kurt Larsen wrote.

“We now proudly represent 311 practising and student optometrists across South Australia.

"Although this number is growing overall, we recognise that as a percentage of total optometrists practising in SA, our representation is dropping.”

Larsen added that the association has “better member statistics than many other professional bodies, but we hope that with passion, effort, and good member services we can turn this number around and grow our membership still further. Only through strong member support can we successfully lobby government and other stakeholders to advance optometry”.

In 2018, Optometry South Australia and Optometry Victoria’s membership bodies voted in favour of amalgamation. At the time of the vote, maintaining membership numbers was cited as a reason behind the merger.

“Both states, individually, are quite successful in terms of hanging onto their members, so we think if we can make it better and cheaper we will be even better at that,” former Optometry Victoria CEO Mr Pete Haydon told Insight at the time.

OA’s current stance also differs with its previous practice of transparency. The national body last published a specific membership number in its 2013–2014 annual report, which documented 4,300 members. However; the subsequent four annual reports omitted an actual membership number.

Best practice

Ms Julie Garland McLellan, a leading governance consultant and professional company director, believes membership numbers play an important role in associations: “Members have a right to understand the financial position and prospects of their association. That means they can expect to know if membership is growing or declining.”

"Optometry Australia board does not see any need to answer your questions"
Darrell Baker, OA

As previously reported, Garland McLellan points to a range of regulations and governance standards as set out by the Australian Securities & Investments Commission and the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission. She also points to the Australian Institute of Company Directors guidelines for not-for-profit organisations, particularly principle 7.5 on accountability, as best practice.

“It is tempting [for an association] to stop reporting an indicator if it starts to show that performance is not improving, however good governance is to give equal weight to news of equal importance for members in assessing the performance and prospects of their organisation.”

Garland McLellan also said it can be tempting to exaggerate member numbers to increase an organisation’s status: “It is typical for large associations to state their member numbers in submissions and for smaller associations to mention the importance of their members to society rather than state the number of members they have.”

At the time of publication OA had not altered its stance on confidentiality, and of the 15 health-related associations contacted by Insight, it remains the only one unwilling to state its membership number on the record, preferring to place the responsibility on members to undertake their own examination by estimating a figure from a separate government website, which may or may not be accurate.

Garland McLellan added: “It is important for a board to draw a distinction between what they consider an appropriate strategy to engage an outside party and what they consider an appropriate response to an inquiry from a member.”

Insight questioned Baker on 5 July on this issue: “If a current member of Optometry Australia requests a precise membership number (the October 2018 number, for example) do you, as Board Chairman, undertake to ensure the information will be provided to the member, without question?”

At the time of publication Baker had not provided an answer.

Ophthalmic & Health Organisations' MembershipNumber
RANZCO (excludes associates)1,497
Australian Society of Ophthalmologists550
Cornea and Contact Lens Society of Australia616
Orthoptics Australia563
Optometry Australia (OA)Classified
Dispensing Opticians’ Association (NSW/VIC)330
Australian Dental Association15,367
Australian Medical Association44,970
Australian Osteopathy Association3,030
Australian Physiotherapy Association25,625
Australian Podiatry Association2,678
Australian Psychology Association24,059
Chiropractors Association of Australia3,290
Occupational Therapy Australia6,867
Australian College of General Practitioners39,316

Of the above 15 health related not-for-profit organisations contacted, only OA
refuses to divulge or place its membership number on the public record.

Chart first published 31 May, 2019


More reading:

Optometry Australia membership "Confidential"
Influencing optometry: OA Annual Report 2017–2018
OA South Australia President's Report 2018

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