New Nominet chair: I’ll start by listening
Baroness Rennie Fritchie opens up
Nominet’s new chair will start her new job by listening.
“I don’t come in with answers. I would like to listen to staff, but I also recognise how important it is to listen to members, to see how strongly they feel,” Baroness Rennie Fritchie explained to The Reg in her first interview since accepting her new position. She is also setting up one-to-one meetings with Board members “to understand the past and the aspirations they have for the future of the organization and for the Board”.
The cautious listening approach will be welcome after years of fierce fighting at the Board and member levels of Nominet over the direction of the organisation. That fight ultimately cost Nominet three Board members, including the chair, its IT director and its legal and policy director, and badly damaged relations between staff and members.
A truce of sorts has emerged with the adoption of a number of constitutional changes earlier this year, and Baroness Fritchie is keen to exploit it. “I recognise that Nominet has been through challenging times, but I also see it as an organisation that is good at heart. The Board has an opportunity to start again — or, at least, not continue down the same path. It can step up in a strong way.”
Despite having limited technical understanding — “I have a number of email accounts, and I can use Skype, but if I comes to acronyms I need people to tell me about them" — she says she shares “values that are probably similar” to the technical community she will be serving.
As chair of the Web Science Research Initiative at Southampton University, she met and got to know Tim Berners-Lee and Wendy Hall, and as a result, “I understand the importance of a web that is open, safe and secure.”
Her qualifications from the job instead stem from her (extensive) experience chairing Boards and — another complicating factor in Nominet’s existence — her experience with the government.
“I understand how challenges and risk and conflict can impact an organization,” she tells us, “I have been doing it for many years.” (She doesn’t mention it, but pre-Baroness Rennie Fritchie wrote Resolving Conflicts in Organizations in 1998. You can still buy copies online.)
Asked why she had been chosen after an interview process that comprised three sets of interviews with headhunters, Nominet’s non-executive Board directors, and finally its CEO, she suggests that they “liked this seasoned person”.
“In the IT world, people are typically very young and energetic and lively; I am seasoned and experienced. I have been white-water rafting before, and I know how to chair a Board.” A key issue at the heart of Nominet’s problems is a small group of determined domainers who feel the organization is not listening to them — they want lower per-domain prices, whereas Nominet’s management is keen to retain what it sees as the high status of dot-uk domains.
Due to Nominet’s unusual membership and voting structures, this small group was capable of exerting disproportionate influence and did so to elect Board members who then opposed plans internally. Baroness Fritchie says she understands the pressures that can result from new groups upsetting the status quo. “I was vice-chair of a building society when it went through carpetbagging. We had a few people with different agendas.”
(Quick bit of history: in the 1990s, the rules surrounding building societies in the UK changed to the extent that members of mutual groups stood to gain financially if they decided to change their charter. They then found large number of new members who joined in order to encourage such a change and so reap a resulting windfall.)
The situation is not the same with Nominet, she stresses, “but there are some similarities, and I lived through that experience.”
The issue for Board control also gained the interest of the UK government, which warned Nominet that it was prepared to step in if the organization couldn’t self-regulate. The result, in a number of clauses in the Digital Economy Bill, is that the government now has a number of reserve powers to take over the dot-uk registry if it thinks the situation warrants it.
Having previously worked as a regulator of government, Baroness Fritchie recognises the importance of that step and is determined to do something about it. “Self-regulation is very important. We have to demonstrate that not only do we have the tools but also that we use them well — and I think Nominet has demonstrated that extremely well to government.”
She doesn’t see the government repealing its new powers though. “Government is keen to have a final determinant. And given the last year of banks and the economy, you can understand why they would want it.”
But, she says, it was the previous Labour government that introduced the powers and so far the Conservative-Liberal coalition government “seems less interested in central control”, adding that she will want to test that hypothesis as well as “be able to influence” how this government views the reserve powers. “Part of the reason I’m here is that I worked as a regulator of government, so I hope to give the government confidence in Nominet,” she says, noting, “but I’m not there for government, I’m there for Nominet.”
As to her likely style as chair, Baroness Fritchie highlights a philosophy of “principled pragmatism” which recognises that “there is always a principle behind the rule”. She also cites the first principle of a doctor's philosophy: “Do no harm.” “I know that an organization is only as good as the people who work for it, and I hope to demonstrate how to get the best we can from them.”
She recognises that the task of guiding Nominet will not be simple or certain, however, describing it as “a bit like navigating by the stars”. The key, says the woman who also authored a book called The Business of Assertiveness, is to “keep a strong heart and a cool head”.
If the past five years of Nominet’s existence are anything to go by, its new chair will need both. ®