Monday, February 04, 2008

The Bones Commission: a recovering bureaucrat thinks aloud

I have been persuaded that, despite my fairly minor position in the pantheon of internal bureaucracy within our great Party, I should submit something to the Bones Commission, looking as it is into how the party can be better run and managed.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceFirstly, I should note that I was rather depressed to discover that we bureaucrats are the problem not, as I would willingly accept, part of it. If the suggestion is that those of us manning the bureaucracy prevent the organisation from working effectively, then perhaps those who are so criticial might like to take on the roles of, for example, Returning Officers, Treasurers or Regional Candidates Chairs, to name but three. In many cases, they would be more than welcome...

However, whingefest over, I thought that I might outline what I believe is one of the major weaknesses we have, that of poor communication channels.

My own particular area of interest is candidate selection. I'm a Returning Officer, Parliamentary candidate assessor and member of both my Regional and State Candidates Committees. It would be fair to say that I know my way around this often controversial area of our activity. Looking at English Candidates Committee (ECC), our key stakeholders are;
  • Regional Parties;
  • candidates, both approved and potential; and
  • Campaigns Department
You will note that I don't mention Local Parties, English Council or ordinary members. With the exception of English Council, they almost certainly don't care what we do. There is, to some extent, a sense that English Council cares about what we do, but prefers to let us get on with it - it is so very complex, after all...

Regional Parties are represented on ECC by the Regional Candidates Chairs who, for the most part, are vastly experienced in the arena as candidates past and present, or Returning Officers, or assessors, and often have experience of a multiple of those roles. They generally have a firm grasp of the issues, and give much time and energy to solving the inevitable problems that arise. They should, and in my experience do, report back to their Regional Executives. So far, so good. This is where the Local Parties link in, however, and speaking for my own Region, our means of reaching Local Party Officers and members is weak/non-existent.

The Parliamentary Candidates Association (PCA) represents candidates, albeit it in my view rather badly. Their representative turns up sometimes, although inconsistently, and we have no way of knowing how information is fed back to the PCA Executive Committee, let alone ordinary members of the organisation. I have received a number of complaints in the past about the PCA's failure to include approved candidates who have paid a subscription, and generally refer them to Jo Christie-Smith. As I don't tend to hear much after that, I presume that she deals with the matter with her usual competence. However, they don't have any means of reaching potential approved candidates, so another gap in our reach to stakeholders becomes apparent.

Campaigns Department is of the view that ECC isn't very good at its job. We are too slow in getting candidates selected, we are unresponsive to their needs. On the other hand, they issue edicts without considering how this might impact on the ECC's work. For example, they annonuced that, in order to become a 'moving forward' seat, a constituency had to select its Prospective Parliamentary Candidate (PPC) no later than 31 December 2006. It might have been nice had they told ECC, I suppose, but we did find out when in late summer 2006, there was a rush of Local Parties demanding Returning Officers.

There is a tendancy amongst Campaigns Department to make decisions without consideration of what needs to be done to deliver their wishes. Given that there is no apparent channel of communication between Campaigns Department and ECC, perhaps what tends to happen next is predictable.

I have concluded from this, and a whole series of other intra-organisational clashes, that we really aren't good at considering stakeholders when creating strategy. When I was elected to the Regional Executive in late 2004, and became Regional Secretary, I attended a meeting of the Regional Policy Committee, merely to find out what it did and how it worked, to find myself in the middle of a meeting about a Region-wide manifesto. My first question was, "Who does this affect, and how?". A list of stakeholders was drawn up and a consultation process devised. It didn't have to be lengthy, it merely needed to be thorough.

In meeting after meeting since then, the question of stakeholders has been glossed over. Questions such as who is impacted by your work, how it impacts upon them, and how best to communicate with them, are neglected because we have extremely limited means by which we can reach them.

If the Bones Commission can achieve one cultural change in this Party, I would hope that it might be to strengthen our communication channels. More effective use of e-groups would help, but a little more thought about the poor bastards who have to deliver upon commitments entered into from on high might also allow the volunteer bureaucrat corps to deliver them effectively where it actually matters.


Linda Jack said...

By the way Mark, what was the outcome re endorsement of candidates?


Martin Turner said...

Hi Mark.
I've just taken over as Chair of the Parliamentary Candidates Association. For all kinds of reasons which aren't worth going into now, PCA has not done very much or been very efficient over the past two years. This is now changing. We've just completed the first substantial survey for many years of candidates views on the selection process (both PCA members and non-members), have arranged a series of briefings for candidates at the forthcoming party conference, and are putting together a set of materials exactly aimed at people who might consider becoming candidates. Other things are in the works.