Insights from the American and Canadian Psychological Associations

Professor Lyn Littlefield OAM FAPS

I have recently returned from a very informative trip to North America, where I visited the American Psychological Association (APA) and the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA) in addition to attending the large scale annual APA Convention. During my visits to the APA and the CPA, I spent considerable time with the CEOs and a number of senior staff. It was fascinating to gain knowledge and insight from senior executives of similar professional associations for psychologists, who grapple with many of the same issues of meeting the needs of a diverse membership and operating within challenging political climates. I thought it would be of interest to share some of the more significant insights and understandings that I gleaned from my visits, particularly in the areas of our own Society's recent focus of attention on education and training models, the structure of member groups and political advocacy in health care.

Canadian Psychological Association

My first stop was Ottawa, Ontario, where I gained a greater understanding of the CPA through the Executive Director, Dr Karen Cohen. The CPA has 6,524 members and is managed by an office with 15 staff. The Provinces and Territories of Canada have their own psychology associations, which presents some difficulties when negotiation and advocacy is required on national issues. The CPA is comprised of 31 Sections, which are groups of psychologists with common interests in various areas of psychology. The Sections cover areas ranging from Adult Development and Ageing through Clinical Neuropsychology to Traumatic Stress. Although these Sections incorporate the specialty areas of psychology (equivalent to our Colleges), they operate much like the Interest Groups of the APS in that they are formed through a petition from at least 25 members following approval by the Board of Directors and do not require specific membership criteria.

The CPA operates an accreditation system for doctoral programs and internships in professional areas of psychology, although accreditation is only a voluntary process that provides the function of allowing training programs to demonstrate that they meet a certain standard of training. A doctoral level of training is required for registration as a practitioner in Canada and individual practitioners are licensed through the Provincial regulating bodies.

American Psychological Association

I spent a much greater amount of time at the APA headquarters which is situated in an imposing building in Washington DC. Here I met with the CEO, Dr Norman Anderson, and quite a number of senior executive staff. The APA has a total of 151,263 members, an annual revenue of $103 million and assets worth $201 million. Over the last year, the organisation has been severely affected by the global financial crisis and has been forced to make significant cuts to the more than 500 staff who run the Central Office.

The APA has a very complex governance structure which is overseen by a 175-member Council of Representatives that represents State Associations and numerous Directorates and Divisions. The various specialty, research and practice areas of psychology are represented by 54 different Divisions, each of which must have a minimum of 800 members to be established. With the exception of one Division, they do not require specific qualifications for membership and in this way are more like the Interest Groups of our Society. The fundamental complexity of the APA Division structure makes it difficult for the organisation to operate with one voice. The APA has recently completed its first ever strategic plan which it is hoped will enable a ‘cultural shift' and greater coordination in the operations of the organisation. The strategic plan identifies three key priority areas - to maximise organisational effectiveness, expand psychology's role in the health sector, and have psychology seen as a science.

The APA operates a Commission on Accreditation that is responsible for accrediting professional doctoral training programs, pre-doctoral internships and post-doctoral residencies in specialty areas of psychology to ensure they meet an accepted standard of training, although completion of an accredited program is not required for registration (or licencing as it is known there). Doctoral level qualifications are required as the base grade for practice as a psychologist in the United States.

APA advocacy

An impressive aspect of the APA operations is its advanced level of visible national advocacy for psychology at the federal Congress level. The APA works closely with decision makers on Capitol Hill and in federal agencies as they formulate legislation and regulations of interest to psychologists for community wellbeing and solving problems. A government relations team is established in each APA Directorate, and these are particularly strong in the Education, Practice, Public Interest and Science Directorates. Advocacy from these teams aims to increase federal support for psychology education and training, to advocate for practitioners and consumers of psychological services, to shape federal policy to promote psychology for the advancement of health and human welfare, and to influence policy decisions that improve the infrastructure of psychological science and funding of research.

Advocacy staff within these government relations teams write research-based reports to raise awareness of psychology-related issues amongst members of Congress, specify policy recommendations and even work with Congress ‘staffers' to draft legislation. The extent of this highly developed mutually beneficial relationship is reflected in the APA Congress Fellowship Program where psychologists spend a year as a special assistant to a member of Congress or Congressional Committee. I have already begun considering how to use this American experience to inform and enhance our own advocacy efforts to contribute to the more effective use of psychological knowledge by government.

Focus on students and early career psychologists

Another interesting aspect of the APA's operations is its strong focus on graduate students and early career psychologists. Graduate student members are charged a lower membership fee and have their own group within the APA. The American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS) has approximately 42,000 members and works to enhance students' development towards their careers in psychology and to play a part in shaping the future of the profession. APAGS publishes its own magazine and has developed a number of information resources for students. There is strong student involvement throughout the APA, and APAGS is called upon to coordinate particular issues of APA advocacy among students through dissemination of messages at university campuses and lobbying Congress through email systems. Here in Australia, the APS student membership fee was lowered earlier this year and has been a remarkably successful strategy in attracting over 600 new students to the Society. There is great potential to enhance the experience of these future Australian psychologists through consideration of aspects of the APA model.

The APA also has a strong focus on supporting the unique interests and concerns of psychologists in the early stages (the first seven years) of their careers. A dedicated committee supports the needs of early career psychologists within and outside the APA through advocacy, the administration of an awards and a scholarship program, and the development of a suite of resources. Resources for early career psychologists include financial and business planning services, information on funding opportunities, and opportunities for networking and leadership. Early career members have lower APA subscription fees on initial graduation from student status and these are gradually ramped up to full membership fees. Again, there are a number of ideas from the APA to explore for APS members in early career stages, particularly given the recent influx of student members who will soon be new psychologists embarking on their careers.

Summit on the future of psychology practice

I was privileged to spend some time with the APA President, Dr James Bray, and to hear first-hand about his Presidential initiative on the future of psychology practice. The initiative involves the identification of models and policies for the future practice of psychology in order to stay relevant in the 21st Century, given the availability of integrated technologies and a number of major scientific advances. To help to stimulate new ideas, his impressive Summit on the Future of Psychology Practice held earlier this year deliberately included a panel of external experts from other professional backgrounds such as economics, medicine, communications and even futurism, as well as over 100 well respected psychologists from various fields.

The Summit identified a number of strategies to embrace identified future changes that clustered around major themes, including: identifying pivotal roles for psychologists and psychological models in integrated primary health care; developing treatment guidelines and accountability measures specifically for psychological practice; removing barriers to mobility and licensure; redefining training models to incorporate more interdisciplinary aspects; increasing the use of technology in training, service delivery and health records; and more visible use of psychology to benefit society. These shifts certainly have significant resonance in the Australian environment and in fact there are a number of these areas in which the APS has already undertaken significant work in planning and advocacy.

I returned home with some interesting ideas for consideration to enhance the operations of our Society and the services it provides to members. However, with my own detailed knowledge of managing a professional association for psychologists in a changing political landscape, my overriding impression from the visit to North America was just how well our own Society manages both its external and internal operations through effective structures and governance. The APA has almost ten-fold more members and - given economies of scale - immensely more resources with which to operate, so in Australia we are definitely ‘punching above our weight' in terms of what we have been able to achieve and the effective manner in which we are tackling the numerous new challenges for psychology.

InPsych October 2009