Funder by the Department of Human Services Auspiced by Our Community

THE ROLE OF THE SECRETARIAT


Most committees in the mental health sector have a secretariat: an administrative arm responsible for tasks such as preparing agendas and correspondence, and providing background briefing notes and advice to committee members.

To many of us, the job description of a secretariat staff member might appear pretty boring: photocopying, preparing sets of reading material, booking flights and rooms, making sure taxi vouchers are sent on time, and keeping minutes. The secretariat staff may also have the task of liaising with committee members, especially the chair, between meetings.

Small committees might have just one person responsible for all these tasks; a large national committee might have a staff of dozens of people.

The secretariat's job is partly invisible to committee members, and this is how it is supposed to be, but some committees abuse the secretariat by imposing tasks that go beyond their role. Problems can arise when there is disunity on a committee and its members are trying, for example, to 'out-science' each other or produce more material to support their arguments than anyone else. In this case, the secretariat can spend a huge amount of time reproducing material that has more to do with the politics of the committee and the egos of particular members than it does with making good decisions.

The secretariat consists of people with jobs to do; they are not servants to those who make the loudest demands. To prevent this problem, sometimes committee members will be asked to channel their requests to the secretariat through the chair.

Often, some people on the committee have better access to the secretariat than others, even if this is simply a product of some consumers having neither the confidence nor the knowledge and belief in the consumer body of knowledge to be as pushy as clinicians or academics. Differences in personal style can also contribute to inequality of access.

Many of us believe that often there is significantly more dialogue between the secretariat and powerful committee members (this includes some consumers) than there is between the secretariat and those who are 'sector nobodies'. Sector nobodies might include grassroots 'carers' or staff from the non-government sector, as well as consumers.

However, this might just be a result of clever engagement by those with good skills - not everything is a vendetta against consumers! It rings true that the chair would make contact more regularly with people who are perceived to have 'influence'.

It also makes sense, even if it's unfair, that the secretariat would follow the chair's lead. And of course let's not forget that some of the bigwigs with large amounts of power are consumers.


Neutral or partisan?

Most secretariat staff strive for neutrality, but they are as caught up in the institutions of power in our culture as committee members are. Usually, secretariat staff are better able to understand and metaphorically hear a familiar discourse than an unfamiliar discourse. This is not neutrality.

For example, the way a bureaucrat hears the proceedings of a committee meeting is inevitably informed by the inter-subjectivity in his or her head about how the committee works.

Therefore we need to scrutinise the minutes with care. Sometimes the damage is done before we have an opportunity to correct a major exclusion or mistaken interpretation. When consumers, correctly, try to right the wrong out of context at the next meeting, non-consumer members might be niggly. They are niggly because we are taking up time, and, to them, our important issues may seem petty. Their power and influence is being tested even though this was not our intention at all.

A secretariat, like any bureaucracy, is made up of different people with different backgrounds, qualifications, political beliefs, attitudes towards power and powerlessness, more or less seniority within the bureaucracy, and more or less support for the idea of consumers as major players in the committee the secretariat services.

Bureaucracies in the health sector tend to be home to many people who have backgrounds as clinicians. This is a major problem for some because they can set themselves up as experts in all things mental health when they often have no, or little, understanding of consumer practice. A little knowledge can certainly be a bad thing.

All secretariat staff who serve consumers need training from consumers for the same reasons committee members need training (see the information sheet Committee Training for more on this).


Committee rules and mores

All sorts of mores accompany committees. These can be seen to protect those with pre-ordained power, because they maintain the conventional power base.

Mores can be brought to bear when a consumer starts to rock the boat in committee negotiations, or when a consumer fails to understand a committee regulation. In this situation the consumer can be made to feel they've made a fool of themselves, an attitude which is unfair but nonetheless painful.

The role of the secretariat in these matters is crucial. Nothing is neutral or impartial if the committee members have different understandings of the rules and mores of the committee. Secretariats need to develop written guidelines rather than make assumptions about shared knowledge. The guidelines should be short, illustrative, written in plain English and never patronising.

For example, guidelines might cover how committee material is distributed to members. For a consumer member who doesn't own a computer or a printer, or can't afford paper, this is important. Many senior academics and clinicians have a personal assistant as well as time at work to read, while many consumers have neither. Without written guidelines, complaining is more difficult and more risky: we are likely to be accused of being picky, or we might feel a need to ask for special favours. Both scenarios reinforce values we are trying to eradicate.


Confidentiality

Many consumers mistrust the term 'confidential'. This mistrust comes from our dealings with services that regularly abuse this term. Many people have been hurt through believing our life stories were being held in trust when they were not.

It is therefore not surprising that many consumers distrust this term when it is used in relation to the secretariat. The secretariat needs to provide details of the committee's policy on confidentiality in the terms of reference, which means outlining: