How the Party is managed – can you be democratic and efficient?

As something of a governance geek, and a veteran Party bureaucrat, I tend to take an interest in how my Party is run and led. Policy is interesting yes, but you can tell a lot about any organisation by whether how it operates is in accordance with its declared values.

The “problem” with that is, if your values refer to democracy, transparency and accountability, you might not achieve optimal efficiency, if efficiency is defined as “getting things done”. It is a more pressing concern if you want to change things, and most, if not all, Party Presidents are elected on a mandate of changing things. The catch is that there are very few levers that a President can pull that actually do anything – they rely on people skills to persuade those who actually have operating authority to act as they wish them to.

Eventually, some Party Presidents discover the limits of soft power, and conclude that they need to find a way to make it easier to change things. It is tempting to solve the problem by creating new bodies, formal or informal, which allow circumvention of the sometimes labyrinthine and deliberative processes and systems required by the Federal Constitution.

Which brings me to the apparently proposed creation of a new Steering Group which will, amongst other things, “have detailed scrutiny discussions that stretch in a supportive way our CEO and the director team”, is an interesting but slightly troubling proposal. It troubles me because it appears to duplicate the functions of existing bodies established by the Constitution, for example, the Federal Finance and Resources Committee, whose role includes;

overseeing the administration of the Federal Party, including its Chief Executive, headquarters and other staff…

Its membership is defined and they are accountable to the Federal Board, who are theoretically accountable to you and me. But who will this new Steering Group be accountable to, and who will appoint its members? Indeed, if we, the members, are unhappy with their performance, what can we do about it?

I have, for many years, struggled with the question of accountability in my capacity as an elected member of Regional, State and Federal Committees. How do you report back on what the Committee does, how do you reflect your personal contribution? Indeed, even if you can do these things, how can you do it in such a way as to make it meaningful? And that’s in a situation where anyone can find out how I got there, and can replace me at regular intervals.

But, if a body is extra-constitutional, who can make it accountable, who will report, and how can we be confident that they will provide us with enough information to allow proper scrutiny? Will members, for example, be able to ask questions at a Federal Conference?

There is undoubtedly a reason why this proposal has seen the light of day, one which I’m not privy to, but perhaps before we proceed along such a path, perhaps members deserve the chance to hear why it is necessary?

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This entry was posted in Op-eds, Party policy and internal matters and Party Presidency.
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19 Comments

  • James Baillie 27th Jul '20 - 11:19am

    I agree wholeheartedly with these concerns, and have a number of additional worries about the new proposals which I’ll be writing up in due course.

    The supposed “trade off” between democracy and efficiency is in large part a myth, in any case: bodies where effective scrutiny is impossible lose any incentive to be efficient in the first place. This is one of the largest problems with our central committees, which as a result of their near total lack of minutes, counted votes, and transparency in general are extremely difficult even for highly engaged members to have any meaningful oversight of.

    It worries me greatly that questions so far have been answered with both “look, the whole board signed off on this” and “well we haven’t sorted out all the details yet”. If the membership details of this new committee aren’t nailed down yet, how on earth can the board have meaningfully signed off on the proposal?

  • David Evershed 27th Jul '20 - 11:24am

    An excellent article Mark.

    It would seem that under the constitution the Federal Finance and Resources Committee would have the power to disband any ad hoc Steering Group formed to usurp its powers.

  • Just adding to the chorus of agreement

  • Tony Greaves 27th Jul '20 - 12:49pm

    The problem with the “getting things done” style of efficiency is that it too often results in bad decisions and bad actions. Democracy, accountability and open
    ness are not just right in principle, they have a utilitarian justification as well.

  • Sue Sutherland 27th Jul '20 - 1:15pm

    I have never been involved the the operations of the party, because local politics took up all my time when I was active. All I can say is that adding another committee to an organisation that seems to have too many committees with too many people on them doesn’t seem like a good idea.
    Let’s just acknowledge that the party structure isn’t supporting our politics, ask the Chief Executive what model he would recommend and take it from there, involving members in the discussion.
    If we can’t come up with a bottom up, mutualist organisation, which is the basis of our politics, we might as well all pack up and go home because our ideals are totally impracticable.

  • Tony’s second sentence is crucial. A genuinely collaborative style in decision making depends on a level of mutual trust. Ensuring that everyone who needs to be heard is heard may sometimes take longer than other styles may offer. Thus saving money without sufficient thought and deliberation can end up costing more money when things go awry – see local councils, the Government etc.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 27th Jul '20 - 1:19pm

    Mark, this eloquent piece would be a lot better if we understood more of it? Are you able to elaborate?

    I think as ever, Sue here is correct. I think I would abolish most of the stratas of governance and have a couple of good bodies or three, policy, finance, organising.

    The rest is waste and want of anything other than numbing.

    But what do I know, I am not interested in other than policy.

  • George Potter 27th Jul '20 - 2:11pm

    What adds to the concern in this case is that the president’s responses to questions on twitter (where these changes were announced from his personal account rather than the party’s account) were rather alarming in terms of what it indicated as to how this group was being formed.

    He said that it would be a new core committee of 14 people, of whom half would be elected rather than appointees.

    However, these elected people will have to include the president, the party leader, the chairs/convenors of the English, Welsh and Scottish state parties respectively and the chairs of “key” federal committees (presumably FPC and FCC). So by my reckoning this core committee will have all of its 7 “elected” slots filled completely by those just listed, meaning that not a single democratically elected ordinary member of the Federal Board will have a place on this committee.

    If that’s what we’re doing then why even have Federal Board elections at all?

    Also of note is that Mark Pack mentioned that the “Vice President (BAME)” would be included on this core committee but, after much pressing, made it clear that this was the only SAO strand that would be represented on the committee. No youth representation, no LGBT+ representation, no Lib Dem Women representation and definitely no disabled representation.

    What gives?

    And if they’re so confident about the validity of these new arrangements then why not wait until both after the leadership election and to discuss them at party conference before implementing them?

  • James Belchamber 27th Jul '20 - 2:46pm

    This is frustrating to read without context, but seems to be referring to these changes:

    https://www.libdems.org.uk/july-board-report

    The gist of the changes seem to be that they have created a 14-member steering group that reports to the Federal Board and is accountable to it. This doesn’t seem to be any less accountable (as Mark insinuates) since the steering group’s powers come from (and are accountable to) the FB anyway – if the FB doesn’t like it, they can take the powers right back (and if the membership doesn’t like it they can vote in a FB that destroys it).

    43 people is too many for the Federal Board (and I support reducing it, probably to around 14) but unless people believe the Steering Group will obscure actions and decisions from the Federal Board I can’t see any loss of accountability (or infringement of democratic principles) from these changes.

  • Good stuff, Mark. Like you, I share a deep fascination with the way our party works and although I am in no way a Bennite, I often find myself referring to Tony Benn’s 5 tests of democracy, in particular, what power do you have ? How did you acquire it ? And how do we get rid of you ?
    I note you refer to “those who actually have operating authority”. Who are these people ? How did they get there ? How do we get rid of them ? Spill the beans, Mark !

  • @George Potter.
    If what you say is correct (and I’m sure it is) then 7 of the 14 members are not elected, they are “ex officio”. Different matter all together. Not the first time the party has done this sort of thing in the appointment of committee members. It’s clear they don’t want ordinary members getting their grubby little hands anywhere near this committee. It’s a worrying development.

  • richard underhill 27th Jul '20 - 8:24pm

    James Baillie 27th Jul ’20 – 11:19am
    “The supposed “trade off” between democracy and efficiency is in large part a myth, in any case: bodies where effective scrutiny is impossible lose any incentive to be efficient in the first place.”
    AND of our current government. We elected a parliament which gave away most of its supposed powers. How many ministers have resigned so far?

  • richard underhill 27th Jul '20 - 8:30pm

    David Owen has shown some ambition by making a donation to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.
    If anyone meets him occasionally he could be advised about the likelihood of this being helpful to his career, since his candidate in Merseyside was outscored by a member of the Monster Raving Looney Party.

  • “It is tempting to solve the problem by creating new bodies, formal or informal, which allow circumvention of the sometimes labyrinthine and deliberative processes and systems required by the Federal Constitution.”

    So true! The same instinct is responsible for the huge proliferation of ‘czars’ to oversee dysfunctional corners of government with an astonishing ~300 appointed between 1997 and 2013 alone with huge costs but little accountability. Yet I doubt they have led to much – or any – gain in efficiency.

    https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/inside-whitehall-government-tsars-what-are-they-good-for-8879867.html

    For a clue as to why existing systems don’t work, consider the number of interactions necessary for all on the 43 strong FB to interact with each other. The formula is n(n-1)/2. With n=43, that is 903 which is clearly impractical. So, what gives? Inevitably, there simply isn’t time for all voices/POVs to be heard so, typically, a small, informal subgroup runs things and the others are just carried along. When things screw up, it’s a case of, “the committee decided on the best evidence available…” – i.e. no-one is actually responsible.

    So, as Mark says, there can be some tension between efficiency and accountability although, as Tony Greaves says, they must go together. The solution is to distinguish executive and oversight roles.

    Reduce the FB to 14 as James Belchamber suggests, and interactions drop to 91 – but a former boss, who had worked at senior level for BP, argued that even the biggest company is only actually run by 5 people, six at the most, all the rest fetch and carry. I think he was right, so I suggest restructuring the FB into two – each with distinct roles.

    Firstly, an Executive Board with ~5 executives heading the key functions and ~7 seasoned non-execs working in groups of, say, 3 or 4 to provide close oversight. That gives a nominal 66 interactions for the EB as a whole and a very manageable 10 for the executives. Hence, there would be clear lines of responsibility, particularly for the execs.

    Secondly, a Supervisory Board for democratic oversight (roughly like German company boards) with representation from all interest groups to keep things heading in the right direction politically.

    Obesity is just as disabling for organisations as it is for people.

  • Andy Hinton 29th Jul '20 - 4:07am

    Have to agree with Mark V here. If there’s a problem with the Federal Board (and I can certainly see a case for slimming it down, making a higher proportion of its members directly elected, and increasing the transparency of its activities to ennable us ordinary members to usefully exercise our votes), then why not simply reform the Federal Board in that direction, rather than creating yet another layer of party committee-dom? The only answer I can see is that this way is extra-constitutional so you don’t have to persuade the party of the need for the reforms first. It seems especially fishy to be pushing it through quietly while a leadership contest is occupying most party members’ minds.

  • Nonconformistradical 29th Jul '20 - 7:32am

    “Obesity is just as disabling for organisations as it is for people.”

    Seconded

  • john oundle 29th Jul '20 - 2:39pm

    “Obesity is just as disabling for organisations as it is for people.”

    Spot on.

  • richard underhill 29th Jul '20 - 4:06pm

    27th July ’20 – 12:49pm
    Mrs thatcher was in favour of getting things done, but what things? She did nothing to
    Free John MacCarthy
    until political pressure was applied, saying only that ” We don’t talk to terrorists”, whereas the kidnappers were not themselves terrorists.
    Other Tories referred to Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya) in government, as conservative, thereby accepting that they were as corrupt as him.
    When Nelson Mandela was on trial during the apartheid regime in South Africa some undemocratic right wingers accused him of terrorism, so his life was at risk if convicted. International support was applied. He said that he was ‘prepared to die.’

  • I won’t pretend to understand the workings of the party management, so won’t try.

    My point is more general, and that if transparency and accountability are properly embedded into every day working, then it becomes more efficient.

    The problem is seeing transparency and accountability as an add-on extra. A hoop to jump through after you’ve done other things.

    It’s a bit like environmental considerations. When industry does whatever it does, THEN cleans up the emissions, it’s an extra expense. If industry rethinks the process to something that generates less emissions in the first place, they realise they can do the whole thing a lot more cheaply than the polluting version.

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