Some of the decisions that the Board has to take involve difficult judgements in the face of uncertainty and/or incomplete information. Some may have a significant impact on the market position and future prosperity of companies, with employment and economic implications. Decisions may be finely balanced, with different interest groups making representations on both sides of the argument.
It is for precisely this reason that the FSA was established at arm’s length from government. The staff of the FSA provides advice and recommendations to the Board drawing on evidence from external experts, including in particular the FSA’s independent scientific and other advisory committees comprising experts in their particular fields. The Board is not expected to duplicate or second-guess those experts; rather it brings its collective experience and judgement to bear on the recommendations in order to make decisions for which it is publicly accountable. This requires a strong sense of public duty and responsibility and a degree of mental resilience in Board members.
Meetings held in public
As part of the Agency’s commitment to openness, it holds some eight Board meetings per year in public, and any interested member of the public or press can attend. These meetings are also broadcast live on the Internet. While many other bodies also hold their Board meetings in public, FSA board meetings are well attended by representatives from consumer and industry interest groups, local government and the press, and individual members of the public. In addition, a high volume of others watch proceedings over the internet. At the end of each meeting there is a question and answer session in which any food safety or standards issue may be raised by members of the audience, either those actually present or participating through the web streaming of the meetings.
Because these meetings are held in public, and to a tight timescale, Board members need to be able to speak clearly using a microphone, not be self-conscious about being projected on to a large television screen, and be able to make their contributions succinctly.
Part of each Board meeting is held in closed session to deal with the Agency’s internal business such as management or finance issues, or Board development. In addition, a further two meetings are held entirely in closed session. Matters dealt with in these meetings would not be published and, subject to a public interest test would not be disclosed.
Role and responsibilities of Board Members
The role of all FSA Board members is non-executive. Members do not have a role in the day-to-day management of the Agency – that is the responsibility of the Chief Executive, who, in addition to his accountability to the FSA, is personally accountable to Parliament and the devolved administrations for the effective and appropriate spending of public funds. Neither are board members expected to be technical or scientific experts – there are scientific advisory committees to fulfil that function. Rather, they are overseeing the strategy and operations of the Agency on behalf of the wider community, and acting as a “critical friend” to the Executive, bringing their experience to bear on the work of the Agency.