Reform the Reformers – Part 1 Policy making

The business world has its special expressions for what politicians call ‘reform’. ‘If you are standing still you are going backwards’ for example. In Japan there is the business concept of ‘kaizen’, translated as ‘continuous improvement’.

The UK Liberal Democrats are a reformist party. People join the party because they wish to improve things and solve problems.

By contrast some people join political parties to preserve the status quo, or a prior status quo. It’s not so common in business. I sometimes wonder if the CEO of the communist East German state company that made the famous plastic 2-stroke Trabant car, had a business philosophy of ‘continuously staying the same’.

The Liberal Democrats might find even greater success if they focused even more on their primary job of ‘reforming’. That means doing even more to solve problems and make improvements for the general public. Liberal Democrats are keen to tell the public about their liberal values and democratic principles. It is not always easy for the public to make the connection between Lib Dem values and principles, and improvements to their lives; how those principles and values solve real problems.

There is scope for improvement here.

The Lib Dems will surely do better if they are perceived more as a problem-solving service for the public. Indeed, at a recent Liberal International meeting in Berlin a spokesperson for the German FDP explained that this conclusion at a strategy meeting a few years ago led to their revival as a political force.

With the UK Lib Dems the deployment of our values and principles in solving problems, is undertaken by a relatively open policymaking system. This is where one might look for the scope for improvement.

The rules of an organisation reflect its culture.

At local level all the focus is on problem-solving for the public, however small. It is deep in the culture. My local party had a popular long term campaign against changes to bus routes. However, this culture does not dominate at national level. Public priorities for problem-solving are rarely systematically assessed by the party. Immigration may have something to do with that. Notwithstanding, more focus on problem-solving and the public’s priorities is a necessary potential component of the revival of the UK Lib Dems.

One might speculate that if the party was more focused on solving the public’s perceived priority problems, they will give it license to address problems which are among the party members’ priorities, and where we have special expertise; climate-related reforms perhaps being one.

In theory policy is made via party conferences, in two ways. One is simply party members submitting policy motions to party conferences. The other is a formal process where the Federal Policy Committee commissions a Policy Working Group, which develops policy on a broad topic (eg education, defence) over a year or two, approved in a conference motion.

In practice the process is much more complex. Some policy motions at conference are difficult to translate into policy from a legislative point of view. Some get superseded by events. The Leader’s Office makes policy statements. There are Parliamentary Teams covering groups of ministries. There is a Federal International Relations Committee. Parliamentary spokespeople make policy statements. There are special advisers on key topics making policy recommendations.

To ‘reform the reformers’, this is a minefield to address, but address it the party must.

* 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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  • Daniel Henry 20th Jul '18 - 11:31am

    I’ve always felt that “problem solving” should a key part of our language.

    My attraction to the party has always been our ability to explore solutions to problems that other parties won’t touch.

    My main reason for staying a member is that I think we promise the best solutions for problems such as drug abuse and housing prices.

  • Paul Reynolds 20th Jul '18 - 11:33am

    Having already had an email from a Lib Dem colleague asking the important ‘how’ question, I will pre-empt similar questions in ‘LDV comments’. More detail on request, but the key areas of reform are likely to be.
    1. Setting priorities for policymaking
    2. Reform of the Policy Working group system
    3. Rationalising the multiple sources of policy, for transparency and clarity
    4. Making better use of advisory ‘expert’ channels and ‘member representative’ channels
    5. Steps to ensure we look more like a government in waiting

  • Sue Sutherland 20th Jul '18 - 12:31pm

    This is very welcome. An awful lot of people thought they were solving their problems by voting Leave. Whilst we are opposing Brexit for very good reasons we haven’t yet come up with coherent domestic solutions to those problems. I’m hoping that this will happen at Autumn conference, although I feel doubtful about the coherence.
    At the moment the policy making machine rolls on producing worthwhile suggestions on disconnected subjects so it’s no wonder that very few people know what our general stance is except we’re somewhere between Labour and the Tories. We refer to the preamble of our constitution but don’t say how our policies will make this happen.
    We pride ourself on one member one vote but in practice in recent times the public have heard much more about who we are from our leaders and MPs making statements. During Coalition this meant that that MPs went off in a direction divorced from the views of members and the consequences were dire.
    We can’t let that happen again.

  • Peter Martin 20th Jul '18 - 5:51pm

    Hey, stop knocking the Trabant!

    Compared to the western engineered Euro it is a marvel of technology! The designers didn’t forget to include a starter motor to get it moving again when the engine stalls!

  • Innocent Bystander 20th Jul '18 - 9:01pm

    Don’t most cars have a means of starting the engine? Even the British Bond Mark F (of 1959) did. But it was a kickstart.

  • Peter Martin 21st Jul '18 - 7:53am

    There’s quote, usually attributed to Einstein, which says:

    “Problems cannot be solved with the same mind-set that created them.”

    The current state of Europe, including the UK, is due to a lot of erroneous previous thinking by the powers that be. Essentially where we’re at is the logical consequence of neoliberal and ordoliberal thinking. Governments don’t want to assume “too much debt”. But someone has to assume the debt in a capitalist economy. So they’ve just pushed the debt burden on to the private sector by lowering interest rates to almost zero.

    If Lib Dems do genuinely “wish to improve things and solve problems” they have to take heed of Einstein’s advice and not listen to anyone who argues Governments are going to end up like Zimbabawe and the Weimar Republic if their revenue is less than expenditure. Money has to come from somewhere and we all need to understand where. Or, wence come the pence, in more formal language!

    It doesn’t come from the taxpayer!

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