At one minute past midnight on 1 January, 2000, I was watching a firework display in the market square of my home town, with my partner and first child, along with several thousand people.
We had been to the ecumenical church service and candle-lit procession, and were singing Auld Lang Syne, waiting for the party to really start.
This was a memorable moment for me. Not just because of the date, but because I knew I had created the event by virtue of being elected as Alnwick town mayor the previous year. I wasn't a great politician, but I knew how to put on a party.
Being in a position of influence means different things to different people. There are those who do it for kudos, those who do it so they simply get to boast about knowing things others don't, and those who do it to try to ‘make a difference.’
I never wanted to be in local politics, but it seemed that it sought me out by virtue of the fact that I was born and educated in the area. And as my business was based in the town, I spoke to thousands of local people every year, who, apart from wanting an eye exam, frequently had a view on just about everything from dog poo to business development.
In turn, this grew into a passion for changing the environment that I lived and worked in as my professional role in the community gave me access to all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds. Perhaps this was my own early personal version of ‘enhanced service’ development? Who knows.
"When the opportunity to become involved in national optical affairs arose, there were many similarities with my little town. Everyone has a view, and many would like to see a difference, but there still needs to be a plan"
Everyone has a view
Making a difference is a great saying, but actually having a plan to do it is another matter. I made the most of my time in local politics and launched several initiatives that survive to this day in various guises, ranging from a radio station, several charitable trusts, tourism and leisure initiatives, to a development trust for the town.
So when the opportunity to become involved in national optical affairs arose, there were many similarities with my little town. Everyone has a view, and many would like to see a difference, but there still needs to be a plan.
Our profession can cause us to work in various sized bubbles depending on whether we have our own practices, live our lives as locums, hospital or domiciliary optometrists or in the larger more complex bubbles of corporate life – each with their own life support systems, but all slightly different.
The last 10 years at the AOP, and particularly the last two as chair, have given me the opportunity to look inside all of those bubbles and gather opinion, as well as looking outwards at other professions and parts of our own sector that people do not normally have the opportunity to experience – just as I was able to do in my home town.
However, there are differences. The world has changed. People are much more occupied with their own lives and despite the plethora of communication channels and ‘apps,’ it is difficult to sometimes gauge the opinion from the huge silent majority of colleagues who are simply getting on with life, playing within the rules (and sometime outside them) that are set at any given time.
The AOP can never be all things to all people. However, in a highly competitive and aggressive optical sector, I can categorically say that in my experience it is the organisation best placed to represent you as a professional clinician within that sector, both through sheer size of membership (over 80% of registrants) and through the policies and decisions made through the processes of general consensus and informed debate.
Influencing the profession
Sometimes though we can expect too much of one thing. The AOP is a strong, successful legal defence company with a cohesive team, led by a formidable CEO. I only hope that in my relatively short tenure, I have helped in partnership with this team, to open more doors and create new and stronger strategic relationships with as many people and organisations as possible, as it is impossible to truly develop inside a bubble and it is impossible to engage in any form of debate if you are not sitting at the table.
I make no apologies, therefore, for engaging with (and being a strong part of) the Optical Confederation, the four nations, the individual corporates, ophthalmology, orthoptists, the many other allied health professions, the College of Optometrists and the General Optical Council as it is the only way we can influence on behalf of our profession.
For those that are not aware of, or have not engaged in, the debate, the decisions we make can seem rather strange – or as one of my respected colleagues described it, they can appear "rather bland and grey." Take the changes we have made to Council and Board. We now have a very strong Board that can focus on running a legal defence organisation and we have a very lively Council with often completely diverse views that create and decide policy along with our policy section.
With the development of our online forums, it is incredibly easy for any individual to voice their views and be listened to. As a member, you have 100% certainty that whatever you say on the forum will be read by the influencers you wish to reach within the AOP and will be considered when making decisions. It also gives you the opportunity to experience the depth of debate when reaching a decision.
Many of you have already come forward with your views. The Health and Wellbeing survey revealed that many members are under pressure for many different reasons and the launch (with your help) of the volunteer led Peer Support Line is only the start of a new approach in this important area.
In addition, to help voice your views more widely, over 1000 of you have already volunteered to be the "Voice of Optometry," which I thank you for.
So, as I step down and hand over to your new chairman, Mike George, I know that the AOP is in good hands and has a strong strategic direction. The AOP will continue to engage fully with members to understand their needs and develop relevant packages from student to retirement. The AOP’s voice will continue to grow and represent members to government, regulators, influencers and the media. And the welfare of our members – personally and professionally – will continue to be the focus for the AOP.
Kevin Thompson is immediate past chair of the AOP, an optometrist and the owner of a group of practices in the north east of England.
Image credit: Getty