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Steve Coltman replies: How would I reform the policy-making process asks Mark Pack?

May 31, 2015 1:56 PM
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

Steve ColtmanThe current system is that the Federal Policy committee invites people to take part in a policy working group, selects a chair for said group and selects the membership from among those who volunteer. I say 'the Federal Policy committee' selects but I have never served on said committee and do not know how this selection process works and who does the selection in practice. The decisions as to what working groups to set up in the first place, and who to appoint as chair, and who to appoint as members are all pretty important and not at all transparent.

This is not to mention how democratic is the process for electing the Federal Policy Committee in the first place but let's not go there for now.

However, the first big problem after this is the practice of having working groups meet in London, face-to-face, to do business. At a stroke this eliminates 90% of the membership, including everyone from Scotland, Wales, N of England and the west country, and any not resident in Britain at all. The situation is made worse if the chair refuses to allow discussion by e-mail, so little work got done between meetings. We cannot afford to have policy researched and drawn up by such a small pool of talent, namely just the relatively few who have the money, time and inclination to go to London. I was a member of the 2013 policy WG on defence and it cost me between £500-£1000 mainly in train fares to attend, and had I not been retired finding that many afternoons off to travel would have been an issue also.

I have, however, chaired an unofficial policy working group on energy policy. It was drawn from the membership of the Assoc of Lib Dem Engineers & Scientists and wrote a contribution to the Zero Carbon policy paper. The dozen or so members of this group never met face to face at all; one lives on the island of Mull, another on the Norfolk coast - the membership was scattered all over the country. But we carried out all our proceedings by e-mail. The final document is attached if you are interested. This proves that it is quite possible to have a policy WG drawn from members wherever in the world they may be. One or two face-to-face meetings would be desirable of course but not essential and London is not the best place for them. London is stipulated for the convenience of the parliamentarians but they did not play a big role in either defence or zero carbon. London is good, however, for getting high-profile expert contributors to come along and talk face to face to the policy WG.

One lesson I did learn from my experience of chairing the ALDES zero carbon group is how much power the chair has got and how easy it would be to abuse that power. I tried hard not to, and our final document contains a few points that I personally don't agree with. There needs to be some protocol drawn up to stipulate the limits to the authority of the chair and how minority views might be accommodated. The attached document was sent to the chair of the Zero Carbon policy WG who simply sat on it and did not circulate it to the members of the Zero Carbon WG until it was too late for our paper to have any input into the final Zero Carbon policy. See what I mean by abuse of power?

The basic idea of having policy working groups is sound however, it is essential that policy be researched and drawn up as professionally and thoroughly as possible, we all know the bad publicity that might result otherwise.

These are my thoughts on the subject,

Steve Coltman, Loughborough.

Comment - Paul Appleby - Boston and Skegness

I agree with Steve (Coltman). It is hard to participate fully in the LibDems if you are skint - and according to the preamble to the constitution, our most basic statement, it shouldn't be. How good have the semi-professional apparatchiks been for us anyway? Time to give the enthusiastic amateurs - who, I agree, probably have outside experience/interests that make them experts on particular issues - a try.