Policymaking reform; what the problem is and how to solve it


New members often ask how to find out what current policy is, on a wide range of topics, how to influence or ‘input’ on policy, and indeed what the party does with its policy once it is established.

Normally I explain that in policy Conference is supreme, at least in theory. I talk a bit about Policy Working Groups (PWGs), initiated by the Federal Policy Committee, FPC. I also explain that there is a review of policymaking underway, to be discussed at Autumn Conference.

In this context, new members may appreciate a quick summary of my personal views of some of the problems and how we might approach solving them.


  1. What current policy actually is, is not always easy to determine. There are past conference motions which may be extant or which have been partly or fully rescinded. Some conference motions are passed without reference to extant policy. Also, the relative status of different motions is not easy to establish; new/old, regional/national/European, Spring/Autumn, incidental/high priorty.
  1. Conference-approved motions are routinely ignored by leaderships and the parliamentary parties. This may be justified by fast-moving events or poorly worded motions. However, some good, timely policies too are not taken up by the leadership, or parliamentary parties.
  1. Lib Dem ‘policy’ more generally can originate from the Leader’s Office, the parliamentary parties, or HQ Policy Unit.  (eg those that provide the basis for manifestos or coalition negotiations). This pragmatic system lacks structure and sufficient member consent.
  1. The system of PWGs is very lengthy, and it is hard to reconcile the electorate’s problem-solving priorities with those of all the PWGs which are commissioned. Interested members raising policy matters are often advised to wait for the next relevant PWG, potentially 3 years away. This is clearly an unsatisfactory way of making good use of members’ experience.
  1. Members apply to be PWG members based on their expertise, but then enter a system copied from Parliamentary committees; where research is undertaken as generalists ‘taking evidence’ from expert bodies. It’s thus unclear if PWGs are expert or ‘representative’ committees (Notwithstanding, the result is often public affairs staffs giving promotional presentations rather than evidence for public policymaking). There is no active search for top experts for PWGs, no quality guidelines and no conflicts of interest rules.
  1. Importantly, PWG reports to Conference often lack structure. Very many do not state clearly, the problem(s) they are trying to address; they merely start with a handful of very general questions. The result can be long lists of disconnected recommendations.


  1.  Any new system needs to be explicit about the difference between generalist policy bodies which are representative of members, and those which are expert. We need a fair system for the former which taps the experiences of members across the UK, and a proper open system for the latter, getting the very best experts (among sympathisers who many not necessarily be members or even in the UK).
  1. Policy groups of both types need guidance on;  quality attributes (eg stating problems clearly etc), conflicts of interest rules, better briefs, regular updates, and on prioritisation which takes into account the public’s, as well as the Party’s, priorities.
  1. Any new system needs much greater clarity on the status of motions passed at Conference, describing precisely what happens after a policy motion is passed. It should be clear who works on detail, next steps, and reports back (and if ignored, why).
  1. There is an obvious need to keep an internet-based library of extant policy;  informing policy proposers what current policy is, and what is fully/partially rescinded etc. In addition, it also needs to highlight contradictions in extant policy so they can be resolved. Initially, this is a big piece of work, so we may need to call for volunteers to deal with the up-front workload.

* Paul Reynolds works with multilateral organisations as an independent adviser on international relations, economics, and senior governance. He is a member of the Lib Dem Federal International Relations Committee and an Executive member of Liberal International (British Group).

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  • Most, but not all, policy papers are in the member’s area of the party website. Would love a policy library, though.

    I’d love to see a general policy lapse period of ten years, so we don’t have policy regarding Chevaline on the books while we debate Trident.

  • Richard Underhill 27th Jul '15 - 7:48pm

    Pressure groups use the general election to ask our candidates about policy in the way they would ask MPs. Consistent answers are desirable unless an overt rebellion is intended, or the issue would be on a free vote in the Commons.
    Part staff are at a disadvantage if they are working during conference and unable to attend the debates.

  • david thrope 27th Jul '15 - 8:59pm

    the first step is omo.

  • Paul Reynolds 27th Jul '15 - 9:36pm

    Yes I agree, David, One Member One Vote (OMOV) among all attendees at Conference will certainly make a difference (ie OMOV instead of having ‘voting representatives’ elected from all the local parties, and lots of non-voting conference attendees) . Another point. Why are lots of policy papers on the Members Only part of our website. Shouldn’t public policy be…errr….well….. public ? Like other readers of this website I am wondering what the reason might be for secrecy !

  • Some good points here. As a PPC I got asked about a wide range of policies and thought policy information could be more accessible.

  • peter tyzack 28th Jul '15 - 9:00am

    I used to say to people that they could find our policy on the website.. until I tried for myself, what a nightmare! We used to have a ‘Policy Index’ in book form, and at the same time we had single page ‘Policy Briefing’ on individual subjects.. but now ‘it’s all online’ or we have ‘gone paperless’ and thereby lost all that work that should have continued to evolve. Now we have a hill of work to pull it all together again.
    I seem to remember we also had ‘green papers’ and ‘discussion papers’, together with very meaningful consultation sessions.
    I am with you Paul, all the way – Let’s get it sorted.!

  • Stephen Hesketh 28th Jul '15 - 10:43am

    Paul, thank you – a good article summarising several issues we have in the formulating, agreeing and publicising of our policies.

    I agree with all the points made but particularly those of Peter Tyzack (28th Jul ’15 – 9:00am).

    During the early stages of the leadership debates we heard both candidates favoured looking at our party structures etc. This key area is crying out for urgent review and reform.

  • @Paul Reynolds “Yes I agree, David, One Member One Vote (OMOV) among all attendees at Conference will certainly make a difference (ie OMOV instead of having ‘voting representatives’ elected from all the local parties, and lots of non-voting conference attendees).”

    No – OMOV has to mean ALL members. Conference will be, at best 3% of the party membership and is limited to those with the time and money to attend. It is not representative of the paid up membership.

  • As a new member I am grateful to Paul for trying to explain the policy-making system. However after reading this article I am left feeling a) that I need to read it again, probably twice more before I will fully understand it, b) that even when I understand it it will still be extremely complicated and c) there seems to be a lot of people discussing things and then deciding they are policies only for them to be ignored/rescinded/forgotten/discussed again by others. Perhaps I am misinterpreting things but is there the potential for a lot of wasted time and effort here?

  • Stephen Hesketh 28th Jul '15 - 12:23pm

    Clare Brown28th Jul ’15 – 11:09am

    Clare, as a long standing ordinary member, I rather think you have captured the essence of what was and has become of the policy making process!

    I will be non-controversial and say it is probably a feature of [any party] being in government that leaders and their inner circle seek to have more control over their party policies and manifestos. In that we have been proved to be wanting and no different to any other party.

    With respect to its future development, I believe the entire process should be made more transparent and the outcome and location of deliberations and our final decisions made more visible.

  • Richard Underhill 28th Jul '15 - 12:39pm

    Stephen Hesketh 28th Jul ’15 – 12:23pm has a good point. We should have another look at policy on nuclear energy, which does not contribute much to climate change, but risks other forms of pollution.
    I trust President Obama, but remain puzzled as to why oil-rich Iran needs nuclear energy.

  • Stephen Hesketh 28th Jul '15 - 12:55pm

    Richard Underhill28th Jul ’15 – 12:39pm

    Hi Richard, I am strongly against the expansion of nuclear energy for a range of reasons and think that what happened on that topic in topic in government is part of the wider issue of policy development and pursuit that Paul Reynolds has raised so am, for once, going to stick to the thread topic 🙂

  • Stephen Hesketh 28th Jul '15 - 12:59pm

    … or even ‘to that topic in government’ !

  • Paul Reynolds 28th Jul '15 - 1:17pm

    Yes indeed Clare. That is part of the problem.. It has evolved into a system which is now too complicated and needs to be much more simple and straightforward. The problem for people like myself who are just ordinary ‘involved’ members who want to see the system improved, is that it is necessary to understand the current system in some detail to argue for change, and to be able to provide arguments for change that are persuasive too for the ‘insiders’ who know the system and all its intricacies. The current system of establishing policy by voting on proposals (‘motions’) at Party conferences has become really inefficient and obscure. Some motions are put to Conference by the main central Party committees (policies researched & developed by ‘Policy Working Groups’, appointed by the national ‘Federal Policy Committee’) and some motions are put to Conference by ordinary members like myself. Some of these are ignored and some ‘taken up’ by the Party leadership. Generally much policy comes from these Policy Working Groups which work on a flawed system that no-one has really thought through properly. In addition ‘policy’ pops up from different sources, including the Leader’s Office’. And also there is no proper fully accurate and complete system for keeping track of what current policy is on all manner of topics, and the status of each bit of policy, so that all party members (and the public) can find out were we are on each policy subject – housing, economy, education, foreign policy, police and all the other important subjects. My hope is that in revising our policy system, we don’t used the old, flawed policymaking methods ! For example, I hope the party starts out with a clear view of the problems we face in our current policymaking system.

  • Also then throw into the mix the confusion of Regional policy groups, and local group’s policy decisions.

    Part of the issue, as I see it, is that we don’t really understand what ‘policy’ (and conference) is for, nor how to use it to best effect. Far too many policy motions are attempts at pseudo-legislation, attempting to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ to constrain legislators.

    In my eyes, a better use of the policy-making process at federal and regional conference is to highlight and clarify the aims and opinions of the party on key issues and principles, creating frameworks for PWGs, outside experts, the policy unit, leaders office etc to fill in the detail (not the other way round).

  • Paul – thanks for this article.

    I read somewhere that Norman Lamb, who was for some time chair of the Federal Policy Committee, was baffled by how it was supposed to work so Clare Brown is in good company. The answer is, of course, that it doesn’t work and that goes a long way to explaining why the party has never got its policy act together or developed a coherent narrative.

    Reading the article and comments it appears there is a deep confusion about the basis of the party’s organisation – specifically whether the party follows (a) a direct democracy model or (b) a representative democracy model.

    At present voting delegates themselves are representatives of their local party but at conference they mandate policies (at least in theory) on the national party although the MPs and MEPs are elected to parliaments that follow an explicitly representative democracy model. In practice, the mandating doesn’t work so MPs are constrained (somewhat unconstitutionally) to ignore official policy and act as representatives rather than mandatees, ignoring Conference and making their own policy on the hoof, especially in government. Or did I miss something?

    A better approach would be built around the following propositions:
    1. The policy-making process should be as simple as possible (the KISS principle).
    2. The responsibility for leading it (delegated as necessary) should clearly sit with identified people and in practice that can only be the MPs.
    3. The process should be more accessible and draw on a wider talent pool than is currently the case. From data included in Zoe O’Connell’s recent article on the FCC, I estimated that well under 1% of the membership is involved.
    4. It should be far more responsive/have a quicker turn-around time and be more organic.
    5. It is likely that a big part of the answer will involve the Internet. Policy-making is over-ripe for the sort of disruptive innovation it has brought to many other sectors.
    6. Committees are terrible at making policy.

    OMOV is an interesting idea but I don’t see how, of itself, it adds much – North Korea has OMOV for Presidential elections.

  • David Evershed 28th Jul '15 - 3:55pm

    A first class article by Paul Reynolds.

    I propose the President comes forward with solutions ……. and that we don’t form a Committee to do so.

  • @Gordon “OMOV is an interesting idea but I don’t see how, of itself, it adds much – North Korea has OMOV for Presidential elections.”

    Quite simply OMOV adds both democratic legitimacy and it adds “the wisdom of crowds”.

    Voting on policy only at conference is anti-democratic in both the direct and representative models. Direct democracy of conference attendees limits the participation only to those with the time and finances to attend conference. Representative democracy as we had until now is also a sham as in too many constituencies the positions are uncontested or taken only by those with the time/money to attend, and there is no mandating process of the representatives to take account of local membership views.

    Opening up policy votes to the complete membership is far more likely to ensure we get a platform with wider appeal than one concocted and voted upon by a largely self-selecting inner circle.

  • TCO – I’m not opposed to OMOV, merely cautioning that it’s rather like those sugar-rich foods their manufacturers advertise as “can control weight as part of a calorie-controlled diet.” It is, of course, the ‘calorie-controlled diet’ that works, not the advertiser’s snack bar or whatever.

    So, I wholly agree that policy should be opened up to the membership but if that is done is such a way that the “largely self-selecting inner circle” shifts from voting on policy to picking policy motions without any effective overview then there is little real change.

    In other words, OMOV is no silver bullet. It can work only as part of a wider set of changes.

  • Tony Dawson 28th Jul '15 - 5:20pm

    @Paul Reynolds:

    ” Why are lots of policy papers on the Members Only part of our website. Shouldn’t public policy be…errr….well….. public ? ”

    I totally agree. In the same way that ots of pointless self-destructive stuff appears on the public forums here which would be best kept ‘between members’. Perhaps we could arrange a swap?

  • As someone who has been unable to be active in the party for many years, I have noticed another problem. As policies wend their weary way through the system this often results in Conference debating really boring stuff while public interest is looking in a totally different direction leading everyone to think’what on earth are the Lib Dems up to now? They have no idea about what’s important to us’. Emergency motions don’t necessarily cover these points. At a time when the state of economy, levels of unemployment etc is on the News every day, is it wise to be seen to be debating Land Value Tax or something else that even a lot of party members don’t understand?
    The second problem has been mentioned here already but not quite in this way I think. At what stage do all members get involved? Do they vote on whether this a useful policy area to pursue or do they vote on the policy as it will appear in the Manifesto? Or both? If voting is on the detail how do we ensure that all members have an opportunity to hear all sides of the argument as at Conference? If Conference votes and each member can vote, how do we avoid duplication of votes ? If we mandate our reps we need proper consultation and reporting back and my experience of this is that very few members and Conference reps actually turn up to such meetings.
    If all of this is sorted out on line then what is Conference for?
    I’m sorry to pose questions and not provide answers but I think this will take many clever people a very long time to work out.

  • Mavarine Du-Marie 28th Jul '15 - 6:52pm

    Gareth Epps 28th Jul ’15 – 6:23pm – “We have been discussing just this subject on the Federal Policy Committee. Those interested might like to come to the consultative session on the Saturday morning of Confereence. Watch this space!”

    Do you think it possible that before (what is being tabled)/during (live internet connection)/after (the action points) of the session, that those of us who are Libdems members that can’t attend the Conference can be consulted too?

  • Richard Underhill 28th Jul '15 - 7:09pm

    SueS 28th Jul ’15 – 6:25pm Mandating has always been unconstitutional in this party.
    This is what the Labour Party and the Trade Unions do, tieing the hands of their delegates and creating impossible situations. Former Labour MP Shirley Williams vetoed mandating at the time of the merger.

  • Federal conference should continue as a representative body. Representatives should not be mandated. It is up to each Local Party to determine what type of reports they wish to consider at their AGM from their conference representatives. When the party was formed I believe that the SDP did not want the system now being proposed where every party member who turns up for conference and registers can vote as it becomes a conference of all those who can attend rather than those chosen from that group. Decisions on policy should not be taken by people who don’t have the opportunity to hear and take part in the debate such as ones doing so via the internet unless the technology is available for those attending conference and those members at home to vote electronically straight after the debate with an instant result so people know which amendments were included or rejected.

    For a number of years MPs submitting separate papers has been a problem and this should be banned. MPs should only be allowed to submit motions in the same way as other members.

    I think it is time we expected our MPs to support the policies passed at Federal Conference unless they publically state they disagree. I wonder how many PPC selections get heavily involved in which of our policies a candidate supports or opposes? Part of the process would be for candidates to prepare a statement that lists the areas where they can’t support party policy. For elected MPs they would need to publish after each conference which policies they are not going to support. With such an open system Local Party members would have the opportunity to elect a PPC who supports more of the party’s policies than another candidate.

  • It would be a good idea to change the composition of the Policy Working Parties to make them representative of the regions and ensure that the same people are not on them again and again. I do not agree that they should only consider a narrow section of policy. However every policy area has to be considered in the five years between general elections. It is important to keep a system that ensures that members can get their own motions discussed at conference.

    Another problem area is the general election manifesto. It should be the Federal Policy Committee only who decides what is in the manifesto. It may appoint an advisory body to provide a draft one for conference to discuss and amend before the general election, but it must not be in the control of the Party Leader. The manifesto should include most policies passed by the Federal Conference.

  • Pete Dollimore 29th Jul '15 - 9:17am

    Well said Paul, I am glad you’ve posted this and started the debate,.

    I hope you won’t mind if I add two related things which I think relate to your rightful aims.

    One is that we have a party in which 60% of the membership fee is held back centrally for HQ to spend – alongside all the other money they get (half a million in Short Money for example) to produce policy etc. Those of us who look at schools budgets often grumble about local authorities keeping back 3% of the grant for central services and in our party we tolerate 60%! It ought to be no more than perhaps 25% with the rest distributed to regional and local parties to carry the message out to voters.

    The other is that now we have so many fewer MPs and MEPs many offices have closed, and mansy full time staff have lost their jobs – and we have lost their time energy and effort. Volunteers have a little time here and there – perhaps half an hour in the evening after coming home from work, having dinner, helping children with homework etc. They – we – don’t need voluminous quasi legal policy papers. They -we – need straightforward simple to-the-point statements of our party posiiton on the various issues that we can easily use. To our HQ policy makers I say – if you can’t say it simply, you don’t understand it!

    And finally can I just back the surprise expressed by others about how the policies we do have are not public. That can be fixed today HQ – so why not do it?

    Pete Dollimore
    London Campaigns Chair

  • Paul Reynolds 29th Jul '15 - 12:57pm

    Thank you to all those who have posted comments, and it is good that Gareth Epps (on FPC) has referred to the consultation meeting in September at Party Conference. I trust that the policy group running the consultation will hs accept this article, and the related comments, as an input to the consultation.

    In the comments there is one point that I think is worth challenging; ‘

    ‘Volunteers have a little time here and there – perhaps half an hour in the evening after coming home from work, having dinner, helping children with homework etc.’ [Thanks Pete !]

    I have heard this type of view expressed as a way of resisting a wider systematic use of the experiences of members in policymaking. From my own experience (for example recently with new members) there are lots of people willing to give up lots of their time to provide help with policy, provided they are welcomed and there is structure to make the best of people’s real-world experiences. For example this means avoiding the defensiveness that ordinary members often face when trying to provide help with policy; people now the type of thng…someone highlights a problem with an asect of the NHS and they are promptly asked to provide detailed solutions to all manner of NHS problems.

    We should be providing the structures so that we encourage people to help with policy, especially in identifying the policy problems that we should be addressing. However, if we have policy processes which tend to gloss over any definition of the problems we are trying to address (see main article) then we shut ourselves off from our members up and down the country that can tell n details what the problems are that our policy is to address. The subtext here is that as a party we need to accept, with maybe a tad more humility in the system, that as an organisation we are a ‘public problem-solving service’.

    We should boldly say to the public that we are here to solve their problems, and as a consequence demonstrate directly to the public that liberal democratic approaches solve problems better than our rivals’ approaches.

  • Simon Banks 29th Jul '15 - 5:40pm

    A good analysis and I hope the great and good – and great and bad – have taken note.

    But no, OMOV does not help. It does nothing to involve the great majority of members who can’t afford the time and money to attend a distant conference over several days. The entitlement of local parties to reps is now so large there can be hardly any – except those which happen to be next door to the conference venue – that can fill their quota. Our small and struggling local party is now entitled to ten reps and I’ve just e-mailed all new members asking, among other things, if they’re interested in conference; but we’ll be lucky if we have three people there. The problems can only apply to people who’ve just moved (but they must still be in one local party or the other, so could still be reps) or who for some reason are so unpopular with their fellow local members that they won’t elect them – but that’ll hardly ever happen.

    What OMOV does is sever the responsibility of the voting rep to the whole local party membership and make it less likely members attending conference to vote will submit to representations from other members beforehand or give a report after. That’s a pity because local party websites are making it far easier to engage the wider membership on such questions.

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