Time to drag party policy making into the 21st century?

Before we start, let me make something clear. I’m not a policy wonk. It’s not that I’m disinterested in policy, far from it. It’s just that, as a bureaucracy geek, I’m interested in how things work.

When the recent governance review took place, I found myself wondering if it was going to look at how we could engage more members in what interests many of them – policy. And, in truth, I was disappointed. It was mostly about reordering the committee structures and, whilst I have my views on that, it didn’t really do anything that would engage ordinary members.

Our policy making process is still a bit nineteenth century in truth. We have a Federal Committee (Federal Policy Committee) which oversees policy making, which is fine – you need someone to manage the process, even to lead it. But the policy working groups, which meet regularly and tend to be made up of those who know how the process works already, or are invited to take part, doesn’t seem designed for original thinking.

Our policy papers are seldom surprising, tend to be a bit cautious, and end up being documents that nobody can wholly object to. Indeed, some of our best policies tend to come directly from members, bypassing the policy paper route altogether.

So why don’t we move towards crowdsourcing of policy making?

It would allow those members who can’t come to Conference to have an influence on the design of Party policy, and would be organic and spontaneous. Yes, it might mean that policy ideas get stolen by other parties but, if they’re any good, you’d expect that anyway, and besides, if they’re liberal policies, you might reasonably assume that we’d be better at implementing them.

It would also allow Parliamentarians to have a resource of ideas and knowledge to call upon in fast-moving situations. In my particular interest area of international affairs, there are many members with genuine expertise, who might post their thoughts on a foreign affairs “think group” and who might be of use to the spokespeople in both the Commons and the Lords.

I sensed that, during the Coalition years, where there were breaking issues, in the absence of established policy, Liberal Democrat ministers were left to wing it to some extent, supported by civil servants, yes, but without a line of sight to what members might think. Crowdsourcing policy ideas might, if we end up in a Coalition (or better) situation again, help to bring Parliamentarians and members closer together.

So, the question is, are Federal Policy Committee interested in such an experiment? Why not launch a pilot project on an area of policy that is, perhaps, less controversial, and see how it goes? Best of all, it wouldn’t require constitutional change, and it is ‘entryist’ proof, as party policy can only be made by Conference anyway.

And finally, if you have an interest in how policy making works in the Party, or want to take a more dominant role, why not run for a place on Federal Policy Committee yourself?

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15 Comments

  • I’d love to see more innovative blue skies thinking and less… Well, less attempts at writing primary legislation, frankly, from FPC. But I don’t know that crowdsourcing is the way to go about that. If FPC oversee it they will strip out any daring or originality, and if they don’t oversee it then we will likely get a lot of chaff in the way of duplication of things that are already policy, or completely unworkable things, etc.

    I actually think that what it would be useful for FPC to do, rather than spewing out more and more new policy, would be to rationalise and publish and make searchable what our current policy actual is. It’s stupidly hard to find records of what motions, amendments and so on got passed by conference, and while it all resides perfectly well in the head of C Moon, esq. that’s not really a sustainable or accessible solution. What if something should happen to him? I mean I pray not, because I like him, but we have already lost Colin Rosensteil who was the repository of quite a lot of party lore, and David Howarth was the keeper of the rules and he is no longer accessible… Perhaps putting these things down on a server somewhere rather than in people’s heads is the way to go?

  • Interesting.

    However, I am more concerned over how we *debate* our policies at Conference. I think I’ll submit an article for LDV about this. Our “debates” are not debates at all – they are usually a series of monologues. People who raise points or questions have no guarantee that their points or questions answered by the movers of a motion. Summators rarely summate, they just give another composed speech. The lack of intellectual rigour in a debating system is itself a serious flaw in our policy-making process and this really needs to change.

    As for the Working Groups, I have a feeling they don’t work. From what I heard from members of one WG that produced a paper at Autumn Conf 2018, it was a shambles.

  • I’m disappointed by the fact that policy motions can’t succinctly and clearly set out what they hope to achieve. So, for example, the ‘Reshaping Scotland’s Railways’ motion presumably had at its heart the purpose of ‘securing funding for a major programme of feasibility studies to identify opportunities to expand the existing railway network’. At least I think that was the main idea behind the motion – I’m not 100% though. I completely agree with the comment for a published database with versions of agreed policy… it’s almost as though we’re worried people might see what our policies are just now.

  • However, I am more concerned over how we *debate* our policies at Conference.
    Worrying…
    The idea of crowdsourcing means the substantive debate happens outside of conference, via online forums, webinars etc.. This changes conference to more of a networking & ‘education’ event, increasing the importance of the ‘fringe’ and face-to-face discussion groups and the main theatre being more about selecting which crowdsourced policies will be adopted as manifest commitments etc.

  • Roland, not sure if I get you there. Regardless of what route is taken to generate the policy it must surely pass a vote at Conference? This then requires deliberation at Conference. Otherwise Conference need not exist at all?

  • I very much welcome Mark’s contribution. The country needs to face up to the reality that we have a political system that has made little progress since the nineteenth century. Or rather most people have faced up to it, but feel powerless to do anything about it.
    The behaviour of the House of Commons has exposed the fact that we have a system of government that doesn’t work. The concept of meaningful votes is a joke. Are most votes meaningless votes? Yes they are of course.
    We need to be exploring the ways in which we can involve members in decision making. I recognise that this is a challenge as we do not have an example to work from. We are faced with the challenge of doing something new.
    But this is a problem for our species. We have created an unsustainable world. Our challenge is to find ways in which people can work together to find ways of ensuring that we deal with the fact that we have to actively manage our planet if we want future generations to live acceptable lives.

  • Oh and as someone who has registered to attend our conference, I can find little to enthusiastically support. I suppose the best thing to do is vote against everything.

  • David Chadwick 12th Mar '19 - 11:50am

    This is an excellent article and one i wholeheartedly agree with. The greatest strength and selling point of this party should be that our members make policy; making us a true party of the people and not one directed by some London-based PR consultants (Renew or TiG). Like you say, that offers us depth of knowledge, makes us more representative and more responsive.

    But coming to Conference is a big financial commitment that not everybody can afford – especially when it’s held in expensive places like Brighton or Bournemouth. And sometimes it just doesn’t work out because people have other commitments. This effectively blocks members out of the policy-making process.

  • David Chadwick 12th Mar '19 - 11:52am

    The Liberal Democrats are in a really bad place right now. We look like an institutional party but lack any institutional power. We’re failing to get the most out of our post-2015 joiners who could shake things up; they’re expected to slot into an existing structure that takes a while to get to grips with and seldom have it explained to them. As a result our new members are starting to drop off out of sheer frustration.

    We might still miss the opportunity to break British politics open. If we could adopt some big and bold policies before TiG launch in Autumn then we could overshadow them. The digitisation of the party is essential for getting the most out of our members and bringing fresh ideas to fruition.

  • David Chadwick 12th Mar '19 - 11:54am

    It’s been very revealing to get involved via a local party based outside the UK; we don’t have local or parliamentary elections to ‘gel’ around, so engagement with the policy process is even more important and is often cited as a reason for why people joined.
    Most of us were total newcomers to the party and politics. Unfortunately i’ve seen several extremely talented members disappear out of frustration with bureaucracy and admin. They really wanted to get involved in policy, weren’t interested or didn’t have time for running the local party, and so we weren’t able to engage them enough to keep them involved. If it hadn’t been for the presence of some party veterans on our committee i think more might have walked away.

  • I agree with Mark that the way people are selected for Policy Working Groups needs to change. I think each Working Group should have at least one person on them from each region, at least one person from the Federal Policy Committee (but no more than three), only one MP and only one member of the House of Lords. Plus one person from the region which had the most applications (and if there were lots of applications another person from the next region with the most applications to a maximum 5). The regional people to be selected by lot and not by experience or knowledge. The extra five regional people selected by lot should exclude a particular sex if there is no balance of the sexes to move towards a better balance. Plus a representative elected by each State Party according to their internal processes.

  • @Michael – “Regardless of what route is taken to generate the policy it must surely pass a vote at Conference?”

    Think of Conference becoming more of an AGM, thus it is more about adopting fully formed policies than debating/discussing half-formed policy ideas. So yes the main ‘Conference’ becomes a little less exciting, but then that gives an opportunity for the ‘fringe’/meetings outside of the main chamber, to become more interesting and important.

  • The approach to policy-making needs a root and branch overhaul. It’s simply not working.

    I agree with Mark that crowdsourcing should be an important part of that, but it must be done in such a way that the gold is reliably separated from the dirt. And that, in turn, implies that someone, somewhere is taking a strategic view – working out what is important and capable of making a difference and what is peripheral. That cannot be done by an overly-large committee.

    Focusing on the artificial and process-driven policy silos of the existing approach leads to strategic myopia where many of the most important strategic issues get missed because they cut across several silos – the government’s approach to governance and how to run the economy being just two examples.

  • Denis Mollison 13th Mar '19 - 1:55pm

    @Michael BG Your formula for an improved Policy Working Group sounds fine for a sort of party jury, but it seems unlikely to lead to imaginative and forward-looking policy.
    I think the best hope is for individuals and groups within the party – Green Lib Dems and Social Liberal Forum would be two examples of which I’m a member – to be invited to propose policy, and for the FPC and Policy Working Groups to act as midwife (or possibly in some cases, abortionist).

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