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Do you have a nursing issue that you want to address on a national scale? Read our guide to submitting RCN Congress agenda items and emergency items, and what to expect if yours is accepted

“Taking an issue to Congress can really be the start of something,” says BJ Waltho. “It could be about raising awareness nationally, it could lead to new guidance to influence best practice, and it could even result in a change in the law.”

BJ is Chair of RCN Congress, and along with her fellow agenda committee members, she has the task of deciding which issues make it on to the programme of Congress debates, many of which will go on to shape the future work of the RCN.

“We want members to get up there and be proud of nursing,” says BJ. “And proud of what they’re doing for patients because often it’s our patients who really benefit from the work we do at Congress. If nursing becomes better then patients benefit.”

What makes a good agenda item?

“It needs to be current,” says BJ. “It’s also important to check it’s not something that’s been discussed in recent years or something that the RCN is already working on. We won’t pick something that’s already been debated unless it’s a completely different angle so think carefully about your wording.

“We’re not prescriptive in terms of what we’re looking for,” says BJ. “We look for surprises or the unusual and, importantly, we look for issues that will generate a good debate.”

Often it's our patients who really benefit from the work we do at Congress. If nursing becomes better then patients benefit

What is an emergency agenda item?

“The idea behind emergency items is to give people the opportunity to talk about things that have happened since the earlier closing date for agenda item submissions,” says BJ.

“It could be about something that’s developing but the related paper or policy won’t be published until after the closing date, or it could be an issue that receives a lot of media coverage between the closing date and Congress.”

Members are also able to submit emergency agenda items while at the event.

“The majority of emergency items come from Congress itself,” says BJ. “It could be something that happens during Congress or a proposed resolution that arises from a different debate.”

Submitting your agenda item

“Keep the title simple and to the point,” advises BJ. “The committee members don’t cover all the specialties in nursing or all the environments in which nursing takes place – that’s why you need to include supporting information; to tell us more. The information doesn’t need to be long but it should be very specific about what you want Congress to discuss.”

There’ll be a lot of time to work on the wording. If the sentiment is right and we feel the issue has merit then we can build on that

BJ emphasises that although you should give it careful consideration, the wording doesn’t need to be perfect.

“There’ll be a lot of time to work on the wording if your item is accepted,” says BJ. “If the sentiment is right and we feel the issue has merit then we can build on that, but we do need to get a clear sense of what the issue is from your initial submission.

“If your item is an emergency item, you’ll still get support from the committee and staff to refine the wording. If you’re thinking about submitting something, test it out and see what response you get. You can ask your colleagues or use social media to see what people think or if they’ve experienced similar problems.”

What if the issue is already being covered in the media?

BJ says her most important advice is not to assume someone else will do it.

“If you think it’s an obvious issue or question, don’t assume someone else will submit it. Sometimes we sit there in surprise that no one has asked a question that we feel is a huge issue because we’ve read about it in the media or in journals.

“If you think it’s important and relevant, submit it. You may be the only one.”

What happens after an item has been submitted?

“We review all the items anonymously,” says BJ. “We don’t know who has submitted them. We choose the ones we think will provoke the best debate and with the potential to achieve improvements for nursing and then we put those in a paper to RCN Council. 

“RCN Council has to approve the agenda and once they do, you’ll be notified if your item has been selected. Every item is allocated a member of RCN staff who will work with the proposer to get the wording right. The wording is so important – it appears in the Congress programme and outlines what you’re asking Congress to do.”

What if my item isn’t accepted?

BJ urges members not to be disappointed. “We get many more submissions than we have space for,” says BJ. “If yours isn’t selected, it doesn’t mean yours wasn’t good. It just means other items might have been more appropriate this time. And please remember, it doesn’t mean you can’t speak in a debate on a related topic. 

“Sometimes we get multiple submissions on the same issue and we choose a certain one because we think it offers a wider perspective. But if that’s the case, then get ready to get up and make your point in that debate instead. It’s just as worthwhile as presenting it.”

What happens at Congress?

If your agenda item is accepted, you’ll be asked to introduce it at Congress. You’ll have five minutes to speak on the item and someone will need to second it if it's a resolution.

“Speak from the heart,” says BJ. “Know your topic well and then you will be able to speak with confidence. When someone really knows what they’re talking about, and they feel passionate about it, then that comes across.”

BJ advises speaking to the agenda committee beforehand if you’re feeling nervous as they have all been in your position.

“We can give you hints and tips,” says BJ. “And we can put you in touch with a seasoned person who’s been up there before. Please remember, at Congress you’re amongst friends and colleagues.

“I’m always amazed by the support. It makes me feel very proud of nursing and proud to be associated with members who speak up for nursing. If you’ve got something you want to raise, then don’t be afraid – be brave.”

Thinking of submitting something next time?

BJ says: “By coming to Congress, you really get a flavour of what’s required and if you can’t attend in person, I’d recommend watching some of the debates online.

“All audience members are invited to get up and speak during debates so it’s great practice if you want to lead a debate in the future.”

BJ also urges members to read all of the guidance available on the RCN website before submitting an item. “Agenda items can be a resolution or a matter for discussion,” says BJ. “The guidance explains how to decide what you think yours should be and the preparation you need to do before submitting it.”

Congress agenda items - what you need to know

  • Suggestions for agenda items can be submitted by RCN boards, branches, forums or representative committees.
  • If you have an idea for an item or there is an issue you’re passionate about but you don't know who your board or committee members are, send an email to congressagenda@rcn.org.uk and you will be put you in touch with someone.
  • Agenda items should be current, have broad appeal, and be about something where member’s views could make a real difference.
  • Don’t forget to check that your idea hasn’t already been discussed in recent years. Take a look at previous debates.

To find out more about RCN Congress, visit our Congress website pages.

Shaping the RCN’s work

Not only do Congress agenda items generate lively debate during the event, they also shape the future work of the RCN and help bring about meaningful change. Here are just a few examples.

  • In 2017 the RCN UK Safety Reps Committee led a Congress debate on assaults and violence in the workplace. It was decided that the RCN would lobby for tougher criminal sanctions for people who assault nursing staff and in 2018, thanks to tireless campaigning from RCN members, the law in England and Wales was strengthened. Read our story From Congress to Constitution.
  • The RCN’s publication Fair Care for Trans People helps nursing staff to respond to the needs of patients who identify as transgender and was initially created in response to a Congress resolution.
  • An emergency agenda item at RCN Congress 2019 saw members discuss the climate emergency and how nursing staff can help achieve a low carbon health care economy. Since then, the RCN has published a position statement and is consulting with members and stakeholders to develop a climate change strategy. 

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