Nearly three years on, how does the Bones Report look?

Back in 2008 the Report of the Party Reform Commission to the Federal Executive was published, more commonly known as the Bones Report after its Chair, Chris Bones. Both the process for drawing up the report and the report itself was not without its critics at the time (e.g. see here and here) but since then it has been a topic only rarely talked about, even amongst party administration insiders.

So how does it looking, approaching its third anniversary, and does it set the right or wrong course for the party organisationally – or has it become an irrelevance?

In one respect, the passage of time has not been kind to the report because the party’s biggest organisational challenge – losing Short Money on going into coalition government – was not considered or planned for, even though the report’s aim, doubling the number of Liberal Democrat MPs, implied a hung Parliament being very likely. It would be wrong to blame Chris Bones and his colleagues too much for that omission, because I cannot recall any of the report’s critics raising the issue either. A collective mistake it clearly was though.

In another respect, the report has aged extremely well. It created the “Chief Officers Group” which was intended, depending on your viewpoint, either to streamline horribly complex internal administration or to centralise power in the party. After being created, the COG got on with its work with rarely much of a controversy – a good sign of an administrative change that has largely worked out well.

Chris BonesSuperficially, losing seats at the 2010 election rather goes against the grain of the report’s aim to double the number and to support a stronger, broader grassroots. However, the 2010 election campaign did include a record number of key seats (even pre-Cleggmania) and also a level of direct mail and phone support that was well beyond what the party managed before. The Bones report and others (especially Chris Rennard’s successful large-scale fundraising campaign in the first half of the last Parliament) delivered a bigger campaign infrastructure for the 2010 election, covering a larger number of seats, than ever before. The problem was that it didn’t deliver constituency victories. The reasons for that are many, but it is was not for want of scale of operation.

The Bones report also called for a significant improvement in the party’s technology infrastructure. Some have been delivered, including the Membership Secreatiers’ Website (now known as MDO – Membership Data Online). For EARS, the party did try with paying for some extra development via central funds – a far from wholly happy episode as deadlines repeatedly were delayed and the set of features promised for the 2009 European elections were only partly delivered. However, since the 2010 general election the issue has been returned to, and with the plans to introduce VAN shortly, much of what Bones talked about is likely to be in place before the next general election.

The Bones report also gave a further impetus to the idea that those elected as Liberal Democrats should, subject to their personal financial situation, make a contribution back to help pay for the work that got them elected. On this it was successful, with not only such schemes spreading further amongst local government but also now in place for ministers. Progress too has also been made on the proposals to give extra support to help generate a more diverse set of candidates (once conference finally found a set of detailed plans it could vote for).

Some aspects of the report have been rather overtaken by events – such as the questions of communication, both internal and external. But most striking reading through the report now is what it says about the need to build a party in which supporters are more involved, members play an active role in campaigning locally and online to supplement the party’s national and central activities and in which community politics once again becomes “at the heart of our ‘war on the ground’ activity … not just through reconnecting local parties with best practice already out there but also be piloting and evaluating radically different ways of engaging locally”.

All aims that are as important, if not more important, now than in 2008 as regular readers will know from my comments about community politics and treating supporters as active participants rather than passive spectators. And yet they are also aims on which the Bones Reports ended up producing very little in the way of progress or experimentation (even allowing for the brief consideration to setting up a “Liberal Britain” online campaign group to bring together liberal campaigners inside and outside the party).

One general election on, the need to remedy that is all the more pressing, especially given the long-term trend in the party’s local government base. That’s why I’ve been co-authoring a new guide to local campaigning (which will appear any day now, hint hint ALDC), for example. But it’s only one small contribution to a bigger challenge we all need to play our part in.

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15 Comments

  • John Parker 1st Jun '11 - 10:17am

    MDO may have been created but unfortunately as there is no programming support it no longer works. The work on the Treasurers website has been flawed with an inadequate spec and it’s introduction postponed indefinitely.

    We obviously have not cracked the issue of IT development, I suspect because we try to do it on the cheap. I see no sign of this changing. The thought of VAN being driven by a committee and one which does not seem to have representation of grassroots users worries me. It shows every sign of an expensive IT disaster.

    Moving to a professionally administered organisation is a vital step to achieve maturity and growth. Time to move on from the well meaning volunteer to the professional.

  • I too am very worried about VAN,
    Who is driving the implementation? have there been any pilot projects? , what will be the costs ?

    EARS may be clunky but it does the job and has kept a consistent user interface through all its versions –

    This is most important as the software will need to be easy to use for casual users through IT experts.
    I think continual refinement of what we have may be better than complete replacement.

  • “On this [tithing schemes] it was successful, with not only such schemes spreading further amongst local government but also now in place for ministers.”

    However there is a huge inquality. Councillors are required to make such a contribution as a condition of their approval. The ministerial contribution is a voluntary agreement – I was told by senior party figures that it couldn’t be enforced against MPs and MEPs as it wasn’t a condition of their approval (wrongly IMO).

    A look at the register of donations records no donations from a “Clegg” since 1st June 2010 (contrasted with several thousand from Alexander, Huhne and Cable). In fact Nick has made just one reported donation (of £3000) to his local party since becoming their candidate.

    On VAN ALDC were also involved in the decision – however there is a difference between sending a staff member to the decision making meeting and consulting with the grassroots membership on their views. AFAICS the focus so far has been on “picking the package” with little consideration of how the roll out, conversion, training etc will be delivered to the wider party.

  • SImon – I think it was published on the members-only Extranet, I certainly have a copy. I can’t see any good reason why I can’t share it with party members and will upload it in the LDV forums if there isn’t a tidal wave of objections.

  • Paul Holmes 1st Jun '11 - 3:03pm

    With regard to VAN I can see the potential advantages but in the total absence of any information as to how it will work in practice I do have some as yet unallayed concerns.

    Simon refers to the need for it to be accessible to casual users and not just IT geeks [my phrasing] and I fear that buying in a state of the art system from the USA will rush us ever faster down the ‘geek’ route. Hopefully I am wrong but as I say no one appears to have the faintest idea how VAN will work, when it will be introduced, how complex it will be to use, what the cost will be to constituency parties who wish to access it etc etc. In the same vein the current re organisation of the Campaigns Team to focus on 12 ‘specialists’ based in London could be a good thing or the opposite but nobody outside the magic circle seems to have the faintest idea what is going on. Having seen campaigning from both sides (as a voluntary organiser 1988-2000 and as an MP 2001-2010), I know that our biggest campaigning problem is the lack of trained organisers (paid or volunteer) at constituency level. Leaving grass roots training and input to Regional Parties -some of whom are well funded and/or focussed on campaigning and some of whom are not – could be a disaster.

    Much is made of the ‘army of volunteers’ who participate in US elections but little is ever said about the small army of paid professionals who are hired to run elections and organise those volunteers – on a scale which is (thankfully) impossible in the UK where electoral spending levels and controls are respectively immeasurably lower and tighter than in the USA. I spent a week in the USA studying Democrat and Republican election campaigning during the last Presidential primaries and you really cannot make superficial read overs from what they do in the USA to what we do here.

    Paul Holmes

  • The Bones report ignored the submision from staff supporting Lib Dem Council Groups. Look at the local govt base now ! To repeat the cliche, the failure of joined up thinking was enormous. The very arbitary nature of the target of doubling the number of MPs could be why it failed ! As for the short money …. OMG. Reading David Laws 22 Days in May is quite depressing to see how woefully prepared the party was, how strange the priorities were (no tuition fees), and if anyone thinks a voter was won over by the pupil premium, dream on. And how even the most obvious of implications was muddled. Why on earth was Clegg saying the party with the most votes and seats would have first chance to form a government ? Add in an obession with the 24 hour media, the markets and mocking of internal party democracy.

    The nation website had virtually no updates in March or april during the referendum and massive lcoal elections so communication is still very mcuh an issue.

  • The Chief Officers Group is interesting. What was proposed was:
    “The Chief Officers Group is charged with the management of the Party, which means among other things, that it is responsible for determining the Party’s overall objectives and strategy, as well as ensuring delivery of results. The Chief Officers Group is accountable for this to the Federal Executive and the Federal Conference”

    COG would also discharge the functions of the FFAC and Council of POLD untill a post GE review.

    However the most recent report of the FE says:
    “Following the Party Reform Commission Chief Officers Group has proved to be useful opportunity for different parts of the Party to meet and discuss various issues, such as resourcing across the entire Party and development. This group will now be meeting on a quarterly basis to ensure that the discussion is both strategic and feeds into the Party in Government.”

    So I think the role of this body has changed significantly from what was originally envisaged.

  • Andrew Suffield 1st Jun '11 - 7:02pm

    We obviously have not cracked the issue of IT development, I suspect because we try to do it on the cheap.

    Labour recently spent 13 years proving that throwing unlimited billions at it can still reliably deliver a disaster every time, when properly mismanaged.

    The bottom line is that IT development is hard for both technical and social reasons – technically it’s one of the most challenging fields of engineering, and socially there is a great deal of acceptance of bad work and inability to recognise failure, so most development companies are staffed with incompetents, thieves, and con artists. There are good development companies out there, but they are a distressingly small minority.

    You can’t make it work unless the people who have ultimate authority over IT development come from the very small group of people who have been genuinely successful in this field and are also capable of identifying which development companies are actually going to deliver a working product on a realistic budget and schedule.

  • Tony Dawson 1st Jun '11 - 7:26pm

    “The Bones report and others (especially Chris Rennard’s successful large-scale fundraising campaign in the first half of the last Parliament) delivered a bigger campaign infrastructure for the 2010 election, covering a larger number of seats, than ever before. The problem was that it didn’t deliver constituency victories. The reasons for that are many, but it is was not for want of scale of operation.”

    I may agree with you Mark that there are several or more reasons for the poor result in 2010. Especially since some seats in that year produced the best Liberal/Lib Dem result ever and the worst Tory result in history, while Cameron made gains across the country.

    But is our Party going to even bother to look at the 2010 and 2011 campaigns properly in some kind of structured manner? What is the point of making organisational changes when the aims/strategy are not in place? An organisation needs to be geared to the purpose, not the other way around.

  • Simon McGrath 1st Jun '11 - 9:37pm

    @thanks hywel (uploading report)

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