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Now is the time for Optometry Australia to be transparent

If you ever wanted an example of how not to deal with the media, you need only to look at Optometry Australia (OA).

Led by CEO Ms Lyn Brodie, the organisation claims to advance, engage, unite and promote optometry. Recently some of its decisions have embarrassed both itself and the profession.

In February, a routine question from an Insight journalist regarding OA’s current membership number received a response of: “That’s confidential”.

Believing there must be a misunderstanding and that no Australian not-for-profit organisation would keep this information confidential, we sought to clarify the issue. Brodie subsequently told Insight that OA’s number is not a secret. So, again, we asked for the number.

What followed reads like a scene from Yes, Prime Minister:

  • “No, our membership number is not confidential, or a secret.”
  • “Ok, can you give us the number?”
  • “No, we won’t!”

We were given a number of reasons why it would not be supplied, including the extraordinary comment that membership numbers are “meaningless”. But through all the obfuscation, it remains true that while 14 other similar not-for-profit health-related bodies were more than happy to provide their current membership number, OA was the only one that would not.

Any sensible reader would ask, “Why?”

They might also understand that when you tell the media something is “confidential” they become intrigued. Even more obvious is that once you tell the media that something is “not confidential” and then continue to keep it a secret, they become even more determined to shine a light on the issue.

After several bewildering statements from Brodie, such as “even our members would find a number meaningless,” OA president Darrell Baker entered the fray.

Baker had two choices: to realise the absurdity of the situation, declare the number and bring an end to the issue, or continue to maintain confidentiality in an attempt to avoid further embarrassment for Brodie.

The astute choice would have been the former: behave just like 14 other professional bodies and put your membership number on the public record, which OA had done several years ago before switching to a percentage estimate.

After Baker chose the latter, his next steps did not achieve the outcome he expected.

When asked directly if OA would provide the number at a member’s request, rather than answer “Yes”, Baker lodged a complaint with the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA).

He attempted to portray Insight’s investigation as intimidating, aggressive and unfair. Baker either believed or was mistakenly advised that a complaint would put an end to the matter and end the scrutiny of OA’s obscure management practice.

This misstep proved to lead nowhere.

As reported last week, the MEAA’s National Ethics Committee unanimously dismissed Baker’s complaint. “The panel is of the view that … correspondence with Optometry Australia officers is professional and not aggressive or intimidating,” the ruling reads.

A peak industry body resorting to such tactics embarrasses the profession it purports to represent.


Why, why, why?

OA appears to have spent considerably more time and effort not giving a number and dealing with the fallout than it otherwise would have if it were more transparent. 

This raises the question: why would OA go to such lengths to not reveal its membership figures?

One obvious answer is that the figures are not positive. At least one OA branch is already on the record as stating its membership, as a percentage of total registered optometrists, is dropping

While OA claims its membership figure is 82.5% of optometrists registered with the Optometry Board Of Australia (OBA), no evidence has been shown to support it. It’s simple: if the estimate is accurate, why not just place the actual figure on the public record?

If Baker will not do that, it leads to suspicion that Brodie’s 82.5% claim is not accurate.

If OA’s actual membership is significantly lower, perhaps around 70%-75% – as a number of people with knowledge of the matter have suggested – an estimate might be preferable to reality.

There’s a hint of this in Baker’s complaint to the MEAA. He claimed that information supplied to Insight in March “accurately reflects our membership” (Insight’s emphasis). A ‘reflection’, whether accurate or not, is not the same as the actual membership tally, something with which the MEAA Ethics Committee agreed.

So, what does OA stand to gain by keeping its actual membership figure confidential, behind a, so-called, ‘accurate reflection’?

It could make it more difficult for members to hold management accountable, especially in matters relating to the overall financial health of the organisation or any potential hikes in membership fees.

Responsibility is another issue. By requiring people to calculate a ‘reflection’ of OA’s membership based off a figure from a third party website, OA cannot be blamed for the publication of any inaccurate figures. Errors and/or exaggeration become the responsibility of the person who calculated the number, rather an OA itself.

One wonders how many people have had to undertake this exercise.

It also avoids an official number being used as a measure of success for OA’s staff and management. 

All this can be easily rectified. As Insight previously pointed out, OA’s annual reports include an exhaustive breakdown of information about the organisation, including its membership demographics. However there is one, simple, important figure missing: an actual membership number.

The number is clearly known to OA, it just remains off the public record. Why? What is there to hide?

We call on the OA board to end this lack of transparency by declaring its membership figure at the time of its 2018-2019 annual report, placing it on the record for members and the wider profession. We also call for it to be published each and every year thereafter.

As for Baker’s actions, members will have their say in due course.

Background reading: Insight responds to OA: the facts

With Brodie, the board now finds itself in a very difficult position. OA is an association that exists for, and is financed by, its members. Brodie’s extraordinary statement that membership numbers are “meaningless” has left many people scratching their heads.

As Insight previously documented, a board has certain obligations to its members. Further, based on what has transpired, it’s hard to see how OA complies with Principle 7 on Accountability and Transparency of The Not-for-Profit Governance Principles as set out by the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

To the Optometry Australia board: you can easily end this embarrassment by behaving in the same way as other health-related bodies. It is the very least your members deserve.


More reading:

OA complaint dismissed: committee rules in favour of Insight
Optometry Australia membership "confidential"
Optometry Australia holds firm on "confidential" membership number
Insight responds to Optometry Australia: the facts

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