Will there be a steering group?
Most coalitions have some sort of steering group to direct collective work. Such groups vary in size (usually 5-20 organisations), responsibilities and mechanisms of selection or rotation. In addition to a steering group some coalitions have ’chairs‘ or ‘co-chairs‘, various sub-committee mechanisms for more specific streams of work, and wider ’advisory groups‘. It is often the steering group that is set up as the ’engine room‘ of collective strategy, planning and direction. In many cases it is the steering group that coalition staff will look to for assistance and there is an expectation on it to resolve the tensions that coalitions generate.
Why have a steering group?
Like any leadership body, a steering group becomes necessary when the membership is too big to make decisions at the frequency the coalition requires. This threshold is reached very quickly. This book looks at the formation of a steering group before the composition of a wider membership precisely because most coalitions develop from discussions between a small number of organisations that go on to serve, at least in the early stages, as a steering group.
A good steering group should also ensure that a link is maintained between any coalition staff and the wider membership avoiding – at least during the main campaigning phase – a drift towards the coalition becoming simply another NGO in its own right. It is important therefore to recognise that such a group is not necessarily the same as a company board of directors. There are many different models of board for different types of institutions, but a coalition’s steering group needs to be active in decision-making and very much part of the coalition membership.
Where will the steering group’s authority come from?
In many cases the authority of an initial steering group will come from the working commitment of the organisations that make up that group. Steering groups often come together organically as small groups prepared to commit to collective work on a certain theme or towards a certain goal.
Beyond such early formations, various mechanisms have been adopted for selecting a steering group within more mature coalitions. Some coalitions hold elections from the full membership, with service on the steering group being limited to a fixed term. Others have been effectively self-selecting, with no hard-and-fast limitations on how long an organisation can serve.
“A good coalition has a steering committee that is accountable and can be influenced or changed by the members. The whole set up needs to be something that the membership feels is good for them. The process of developing the structure can be as important as the structure itself.”
Richard Bennett, Effective Collectives
Some useful questions in considering steering group composition:
- Is the coalition focused on specific time-bound outcomes or is it a long-term representative institution? If the latter, the formalities of governance may have greater significance from the onset.
- What expectations have already been established regarding internal coalition processes? Are coalition members working on assumptions drawn from particular past experience?
- Is there a group that has already been meeting in a role similar to a steering group? Does a variation of this group have the skills, time and representational balance to be supported by the members? Can a larger group meeting be used to provide a mandate to this group?
- Do some choices reduce options in the future? It may be more acceptable for a self-selecting group to open up in future than for an elected group to break the links of accountability.
- Will representational balance be formalised – i.e. set numbers of places for certain types of organisations (groups with a special stake in the issues of the coalition, such as victim’s associations) or regional representatives and so on.
- Does steering group membership imply any legal or financial responsibilities with respect to the coalition? In some cases where the coalition is formally constituted as a legal entity, it is the members of the steering group that are the officers of that body.
The goal should be a steering group capable of doing the work required, of putting in the hours and the quality of contributions that will drive the coalition forward. In the absence of direct democratic accountability, factors such as commitment, expertise, gender, regional and thematic representation may all help to compose a group that will be supported by the coalition without it having been elected. In any case, clear, transparent and frequent communication will be vital to making the chosen course work.
Later in this chapter we think about how the components of a coalition might fit together. Under that section we consider further additional governance bodies, such as chairs, sub-committees, working groups and advisory boards.
It is very important for all partners in a coalition to keep in mind that the steering group organisations are also members, and very often some of the most active members. Likewise, people in the steering group must be wary of thinking of the wider membership as means to an end. A mind-set that separates these two groups too much can both indicate and contribute to serious tensions.