Internet Australia needs board renewal and term limits, says departing boss

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Outgoing Internet Australia CEO Laurie Patton

Executive director of Internet Australia (IA), Laurie Patton, believes the organisation must introduce modern corporate governance principles, including term limits that guarantee regular board renewal. Patton, who has spearheaded IA's campaign highlighting flaws in the NBN rollout, is speaking out in the interest of openness and transparency. He is one of five directors who have decided not to stand at the organisation's AGM on October 12.

WHEN I JOINED Internet Australia as CEO back in 2014, it was soon clear the board was divided — between those who had embraced the need for a new strategic direction and those who seemingly preferred things back when the organisation was operating more as a "club for geeks" (their description, not mine). Sadly, that division continues to plague the organisation, recently seeing leaks to the media resulting in a series of false and defamatory articles in The Australian.

Current chair, Anne Hurley, who is one of the directors who've decided to move on, is encouraging members to actively engage in a debate over IA's future.

In her report for the upcoming AGM, Anne writes:

'The question to be dealt with now is what is to be the purpose of IA in future. There will be at least five new board members so we should see some new ideas or at least fresh thinking on the prevailing issues. Our parent organisation (the Internet Society) is moving further ahead in its global work to shape the future with a recently launched "next-gen" website. IA risks falling out of line with our parent organisation it we revert to the old ways, as some would seem to prefer.'

IA has been extremely successful in transforming from what Anne describes as 'a largely invisible and silent organisation' to a highly regarded source of expert advice and public advocacy on internet matters, especially in relation to what our members overwhelmingly regard as the flawed technology underpinning the NBN rollout.

However, the organisation has not made a painless transition. Having now served on or reported to a range of not-for-profit boards, I've formed some clear views on how to make them work best. Top of my list is the need for ongoing, programmed board renewal. Over the past few years, a number of directors have retired after what by modern governance standards were some very long stints. 

By all accounts, since its launch in 1996, Internet Australia, which was originally known as ISOC-AU, has frequently been through periods of great internal reflection. That’s code for not having had a unified view at board level regarding what should be done and/or how it should be done.

My recommendation to the members and the incoming board, which I've made in my AGM report, is to revise the constitution and introduce fixed term limits. I’d also suggest some form of board skills assessment be undertaken, along with a requirement for directors to demonstrate a reasonable level of formal governance training or agree to undergo governance training early in their term.

Despite the internal wrangling, one thing that was agreed in 2014 was we needed a future-proofed 21st Century NBN. Back then, the official IA policy favoured a return to a full-fibre fixed network. Approximately two years ago, we began calling for the adoption of fibre to the driveway (aka FTTdp) as a plausible interim option. At that time, neither the Government nor the Opposition had embraced this new technology. Fast forward to today and NBN Co has begun moving to FTTdp, although more by stealth than with an admission FTTN is not working out as they had expected. The ALP is, likewise, showing signs of a move in the same direction. 

IA has hopefully played a positive role in increasing the level and quality of debate about the needs of our digitally-enabled future. For some time now, we've been calling for a bipartisan rethink on the NBN and seeking an agreed future strategy. At every stage over the past three years, I've been buoyed by the supportive feedback received from IA members and from the general public, and I've been guided by a member survey that overwhelmingly opposed the deployment of FTTN using "ageing copper wires".

Like Anne Hurley and others leaving the board, I will continue to argue that our economic and social development requires #BetterBroadband.

As Anne has summed it up:

'While I’m leaving the IA board, I am not resiling from my commitment to work for the broadband infrastructure that will see Australia rise up the ladder of global connectivity and open up all the opportunities of the digitally-enabled economy that other countries are harnessing way before us. I wish the new board well in its endeavours and simply remind them that we are, after all, a chapter of the global Internet Society whose guiding principle is "the internet is for everyone".'

You can follow Laurie Patton on Twitter @LJPatton.

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