Director, TSE Switzerland
Should strategic decisions of an organisation really be left to secret vote?
The IOC and various international sports federations use different systems to make decisions, one of which is through secret ballot voting. Public controversies about hosting decisions for major lucrative international events and leadership within organisations have raised the debate on whether or not secret ballot voting in the sports world is in line with proper governance.
Underlying the debate today
The debate has been fueled primarily due to the public's interest in the decision making process for awarding major international events, such as World Cups and Olympic Games. The commonly used method of secret ballot voting has unfortunately led to mass speculation regarding the trustworthiness of voters and bid representatives. It has also resulted in the media spinning tails, which not only discounts the credibility of the voting system, but also the bidding process as a whole. This type of media speculation casts a large shadow of doubt over the world of international sport.
After the IOC awarded London the rights to host the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, allegations were brought to light about the decision. It was reported that one of the IOC member's votes was not counted in the third round, which could have completely changed the outcome of the vote. Are secret ballots reliable if they cannot be verified?
When Germany won the rights to host the 2006 Football World Cup, it was suggested that one of the voting members who was instructed to support South Africa abstained because of heavy political pressure placed upon him by European relations. However in the end, one vote cost South Africa the event. Could all these complications have been prevented if the votes were made public?
At the IOC Session in Copenhagen next October the IOC Members may be asked to vote on which of up to seven new sports might be included in the programme of the summer Olympic Games. Those IOC Members who are directly connected with current Olympic sports may well feel that the inclusion of new sports might be good for the future of the Olympic Movement, but could potentially pose a threat to their own sport. By voting in a secret ballot their anonymity will of course protect these individuals from any charge of protectionism, but is this right for the Movement?
Complications arise when the legitimacy of secret ballots and the motives behind decisions are questioned. Secrecy is not necessarily a cause of certain corruption, however it does make it much easier for unsportsmanlike behaviour to take place. So, in order to promote proper and transparent governance, should international sports organisations do away with secret voting?
Is taking away secret ballot voting the answer?
Those against the secret ballot voting system argue that for the good of the game, transparency is key. It is important to have a process that the public can track when it comes to making major international decisions. When there is a lack of openness, it is often feared that anonymity is abused. People tend to hesitate in believing that people behave in a moral fashion in a 'closed' atmosphere. They end up questioning the actions of the organisation's voting members and the procedure's appropriateness. This lack of openness, in a culture requiring accountability and transparency, leads to complications.
With the secrecy and speculation surrounding a secret ballot, nobody can be certain that bid procedures are followed properly; nobody can be certain that corrupt activities are strictly disregarded and voters are not influenced through unruly means, especially in sport. Sports organisations are often watched with a wary eye and an atmosphere of speculation is created if they are unable to disclose how decisions are made. The media spurs on the public to ask for answers, which through a secret voting system, can never be delivered.
Many democratic Parliaments use open ballots for many of their major decisions. Each member is elected as a representative of their own party and is held accountable for their own vote. Shouldn't board members in sports organisations follow this model, where they should be proud to stand up for what they believe and be held accountable for their actions?
Not necessarily. With a secret ballot voting system, the voting members are protected; protected from being put under possible pressure by constituencies who believe they have a say.
In a secret ballot vote, voting members have the freedom to choose without fearing the consequences of unwanted criticism or having their genuine voice heard, especially if it strays from the expectations of its so-called "party-line". Unlike the members of Parliament, most international sports organisation members are not representatives of their home nation or sport. Rather they have an elected role as a representative of the organisation itself.
For instance, if an IOC member from a particular sport is faced with a decision about that sport, it is likely that he or she will feel pressured to stand up for that sport. Does the voting member have the freedom to make their own, independent decision? What happens if they vote against their party-line?
This is the case for many international sports federations such as FIFA, the IAAF and the IRB. Of course a lot depends on how one is elected, but the universal role of a board member is to look after the organisation and to ensure that its decisions are made for the future benefit of the organisation. Secret ballots are a way to protect the integrity and role of the representative from being influenced from constituent forces.
Still the debate continues
Feelings are mixed when it comes to the debate about whether secret ballots should be the primary voting method for international sports organisations. There is agreement from both sides of the debate, however, that the protection of democracy and freedom of choice is important. Moreover, importance is placed on developing proper governance within sports organisations that will benefit those who govern, as well as those who are governed. Therefore, the debate between a secret system to preserve the integrity and power of the voting members versus a transparent system for the public will continue. One day, this all might change, but it might just need a vote to do it… secret ballot or not.