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Governance reform: toward a modernization of ACS

by Pat N. Confalone, Chair, ACS Board of Directors
August 21, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 33

Pat Conalone
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography
Photo of Pat Confalone.
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography

ACS is an extremely responsive organization and has sought throughout its history to add new programs and services to meet the needs of its members and the global chemistry enterprise. As the scope and impact of ACS’s activities have expanded, a complex governance structure required to execute those programs and activities has followed.

This organizational structure has continued to grow in complexity, becoming more bureaucratic and less agile over time. As a result, the current decision-making process often adopts a sluggish pace, and in some instances, the actual decision maker is not even known.

There is a sense about the society that a modernization of our complex organization and the processes by which we govern and administer our programs is overdue for reform. We need to address what I like to call the “viscosity” of the governance and decision-making processes throughout ACS.

Historical perspective. When the American Chemical Society was founded in 1876, its governance consisted largely of several officers, a 16-member council, and two committees. When ACS was incorporated in New York a year later, a board of directors replaced the council. Under the ACS constitution of 1890, an advisory council was created apart from the board of directors. Over the next few years, this council was given increasing responsibilities and at one point was considered “the general governing body” of ACS. Roughly 50 years later, that label was reclaimed by the board of directors.

We need to examine how to streamline and simplify the work for which we are responsible.

Today, the society has grown to 158,000 members and is governed by a complex organizational structure consisting of the board of directors, council, presidents, divisions, local sections, and a wide array of committees. In addition to the thousands of volunteers that devote their time and resources, ACS employs a staff of nearly 2,000 with about 1,400 distributed between our two information units CAS and ACS Publications.

Suggestions for progress. The ACS Board of Directors as well as the executive leadership team are using the terms “streamline and simplify” to describe the preferred approach to modernizing the society.

This effort will clearly be a journey, but the following process, though the devil will be in the details, may guide our approach. For example, let’s examine the work of a typical ACS committee. Since the work of the committee is basically a collection of tasks, the first step is to identify each task as a line item. Then for each task, ask the question, “Does this need to be done?” If not, eliminate it. If yes, ask, “Where would this best be done?” The intent is to eliminate unnecessary or marginal work streams while ensuring the tasks are carried out by the best team in the appropriate part of ACS, for example, the best strategic thinkers on a strategic planning committee. This disciplined approach applies to our processes as well as organizational structures, because both will address the goal of modernization. We need to know who owns each task, where decisions are made and by whom, and ensure the process is laid out on tight timelines with clear deadlines.

Constitution, bylaws, and regulations. These major regulatory documents have also evolved over the past 140 years and several council committees and other groups are beginning a serious evaluation of them. These efforts are being coordinated with the board of directors with a view to eliminating any nonessential, irrelevant, or anachronistic directives. In addition, as we progress through our journey toward modernization, appropriate alterations in these governing documents will be required to comply with a modified organizational structure using more efficient processes. Our bylaws must facilitate our operations, not dictate them.

Looking ahead. ACS is a very effective organization. We afford great value to the chemistry enterprise and society, working hard to fulfill our vision, mission, and strategic goals. Governance reform focuses on how effectively and efficiently we carry out our programs and processes. In the end, these improvements will allow ACS to do much more with the same human and capital resources.

So, this is a call to action to all the various components of governance. We need to examine how to streamline and simplify the work for which we are responsible, creating an organization that is appropriate for 2016 and beyond, and ensuring a bright future for ACS. We will do this in a way that continues to appreciate stakeholder involvement while affording greater value and impact for our governance, volunteers, and members.

Together, the board of directors, council, executive leadership, staff, ACS committees, and members can significantly decrease the “viscosity” of governance and ensure an agile, efficient, and effective ACS. Governance reform holds the promise of a well-oiled machine that continues to expand our mission and strategic goals, ensuring ACS’s commitment to the transforming power of chemistry, now and for the next 140 years.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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