An independent investigation has found that RCN election policy should be updated following the controversial disqualification of two presidential candidates.
Employment lawyer Simon Cheetham QC found the returning officer acted in ‘good faith’ when she disqualified two candidates in August – current president Professor Anne Marie Rafferty and mental health nurse Stuart McKenzie.
But his report also concluded that the election policy should be ‘significantly revised’ by the RCN council to consider ‘changing times and ways of communication’. It also needed ‘proper processes for complaints resolution’ and ‘clarification of the parameters of campaigning’.
The RCN has committed to reviewing its election policy and allowing much greater use of social media in its election campaigning following the report, which was commissioned by the RCN council and published on Friday.
The returning officer had decided the candidates had broken the rules by using RCN resources on social media.
Mr Cheetham – who interviewed 16 people as part of his report – found a ‘lack of clarity’ around what was classed as an RCN resource in relation to social media, meaning it was left to the returning officer to decide what exactly broke the rules.
In addition, he suggested a procedure is introduced where the returning officer explains the complaints to the candidates and gives them an opportunity to explain. The disqualified candidates had told him the sanction was unexpected and left them feeling isolated.
Mr Cheetham said there was ‘an important question over how the decisions were communicated and the consequence of disqualification in such a high-profile election’, adding that the decisions were ‘very upsetting’ for the candidates and ‘caused huge reputational damage’.
He also questioned why the only sanction available for breaking the rules was disqualification and concluded that this ‘had not been thought through properly when council approved the policy’.
A ‘defined complaints procedure’ should also be introduced, he suggested, after finding an ‘overwhelming and unexpected’ volume of complaints led to delayed responses. In total, 76 complaints were received between 13 and 20 August.
In addition, he said that the returning officer’s responsibilities should be given to someone from an external, independent body.
The RCN Council has said it has already implemented some changes suggested in the report.
This includes amending the campaigning guidelines to allow much greater use of social media platforms for other RCN elections this year.
In addition, the responsibilities of the returning officer – such as managing any complaints received from candidates – will be delegated to an independent scrutineer.
The RCN will also be reviewing its affiliated social media accounts – including closed Facebook groups – and will clearly state which are official RCN groups and which are unofficial.
RCN council chair Dave Dawes said: ‘I want to take this opportunity to apologise for the upset and anger some members have felt as a result of our handling of the presidential elections and subsequent complaints.
‘We are a member-led organisation and I will do everything in my power to make it feel that way. I’m absolutely committed to working with members to make the RCN the best it can be.’
Recommendations for the RCN will be made in a second part of the review due later in the year from Mr Cheetham.
The presidential election was cancelled in September after the remaining two candidates withdrew. An extraordinary general meeting on the election will take place next Friday where the elections will be discussed.