Our leaders are the finest men

This post is not another one about the ethics of the IOF, but about elections. The title comes from a classic American protest song of the 1960s by Tom Paxton.

Many, many moons ago, in high school, my English teacher used American protest songs to liven up his classes and to make us learn more than just proper grammar. His unorthodox methods eventually earned him even a CBE, but that is another story. These days when I think about the IOF I often recall Tom Paxton’s song about how children are taught to avoid questioning the status quo.

Tom Paxton saw the stability of the US political system a hindrance to progress and accountability. The stability built into the IOF governance system may well be a hindrance to the development and accountability in orienteering.

I learned our government must be strong
It’s always right and never wrong
Our leaders are the finest men
And we elect them again and again

You can find the original here on Youtube.

It seems that the current IOF governance system is a key component of the issues around the federation. The checks and balances that are supposed to ensure that the Council works for the general good in practice do not really work.

These include, but not limited to the following:

  • There is no control over the Council between the General Assemblies (i.e. on 729 days out of 730), thus the President and Council does what they want, including modifying GA decisions at will (the most obvious is the modification of the budget only months after approval – here and here )
  • There are no consequences for giving information to the General Assembly that may raise serious questions around its reliability (the 2016 financial status is probably the best documented one here)
  • There are no accountability for actions (or in some cases inactions) that could raise serious ethical questions in a more disciplined environment. (see here a few examples)

The contested elections would provide the ultimate checks and balances, but in practice they do not exist. Just the opposite: the IOF election system provides the stability for the Council to stay in place. There is stability derived from the low number of candidates, from the system, and the culture of Council itself.

Stability in the numbers

On paper the General Assembly elects the President and the Council, but in practice they have little choice. A few charts speak better that thousand words:

IOF Presidential election 2000-16

I do not have hard data from previous years, but nobody I spoke to could remember another occasion other than 2012 since 1961 (28 elections altogether) when the election of the president was contested.  Sorry to say, but President Putin and President Erdoğan have to face much more competition in their quest to retain their position. It seems that IOF Presidents stay in position unchallenged until they want.

The number of candidates for Council positions is not much higher. In fact, the total choice offered over the last 9 elections is remarkably similar: 10 for 9 for president (11% extra) and 93 for 82 (13% extra to choose from) for Council positions.

IOF Council election 2000-16

(for simplicity I combined the number of candidates for vice president and council member, though they are elected separately)

The number of people actually facing election is far less due to low number of candidates and set quotas (at least 2 of each gender and at least 2 from outside Europe). In 2016 three people were “elected” with no competition. In 2014 the whole Council, all the eleven people, took their position with the General Assembly given the possibility other than to applaud them.

Funnily enough, the Council’s trump card in any discussion when they face arguments from the experts of support and discipline commissions is that they are the “elected body” to make decisions for the sport. Yes, elected for the lack of choice.


Stability in the system

There is additional stability built into the Statues that ensures that there is always a Council elected, come rain or shine.

  • There is no threshold set for General Assembly participation. Ad extremum, if only one member federation shows up, they can still elect an empowered Council.
  • There is no minimal proportion or number of votes set for positions. Even if somebody gets only one vote may get elected.
  • Often there is no voting at all. Point 8.10.9 states that “Voting shall be by secret ballot, unless the General Assembly decides unanimously to the contrary or unless the number of candidates does not exceed the number of places available.”  In practice that means that “voting” is done by open acclamation.
  • In any case, protest votes – even if partial – are invalid, as stated in Point 8.10.10“To be valid, a completed ballot paper must indicate a name for each available seat.” 
  • There is no minima set for Council members for election, though Point 9.3.3. states that “Six members [of the Council] shall constitute a quorum.”, hence there should be at least 6 Council members elected.

After the shock of the first ever multiple nomination for the position of the President, the IOF leadership immediately proposed to introduce more stability by extending the Council members’ term from 2 to 4 years to “allow Council to work long-term and more diligently on the implementation of the strategic initiatives, and thus help ensuring an effective realisation of the IOF’s key goals”.

As you could deduce from the data above, the Council may have felt that the level of uncertainty introduced by highly contested elections every second year is a hindrance for efficient progress. After all, between 2000 and 2016 only 97% of Council members who stood for re-election got eventually re-elected.

IOF Council re-election 2000-16


With an interesting twist though, there will be still elections every second year. The President and half of the Council will stand for election in the year of Summer Olympics, the other half in between, in the years of Winter Olympics “to ensure institutional knowledge and smooth succession”. Clearly, the 97% historic re-election rate was not seen as a guarantee for stability. Yet the rotation system that allows 50% of the Council changed every second year beats the original idea to allow the Council to work long term without the interruption of elections every second year. Is it only me who is confused?

It is the irony of fate that the extra stability measure was proposed on the 2014 General Assembly, when all eleven Council candidates got their seats automatically for the lack of  competition.


Stability in the culture

All the above shows that the IOF governance structure is unshakeable, does not explain the lack of candidates. There are several other reasons for that, but the combination of cost, time commitment, and apparently limited ability to make real impact severely limits the number of potential candidates.

First, it is expensive. The Council meets typically on 4 occasions a year over a couple of days each time. Participation on these meetings cost around €2000 a year paid by the federation of the Council member (overseas federation have their cost capped at €500 on occasion to make the cost manageable).

If one looks at the membership fee levels from the 2016 Congress binder as a proxy for federation wealth, it is obvious that not more than two dozen federations can possibly afford sponsoring Council members (plus the ones who may get support for a broader political agenda). Even for these countries it is a real question whether this is the best way of spending their members money.

IOF membership fees


Second, one has to find a candidate who is interested in international orienteering, comfortable working in English, successful enough to be able to afford time (or does not work), but not too successful, so can still spend around two weeks away on IOF business (including travel). Not a trivial combination.

Third, the candidate has to accept the internal culture of the Council where apparently sensitive issues with potential ethical questions just not discussed, if the President does not want so. Few of the successful people enjoy spending time in a culture where the President just informs the Council that he decided to ignore the budget approved only a few months ago.  A few years ago, after two beers, one Council member has described the internal culture as improving, though: “Things have improved after Ake. Brian at least allows us to tell our opinion sometimes.”

* – * – *

With all this stability in place there is no wonder that the Council appears to live in a world of their own. I got the feeling to talking to people from different member federations that they saw the system unshakeable. With all the safeguards of Council stability discussed above, it would take a major concerted effort across several member federations to renew the IOF.

%d bloggers like this: