I am back to bother you with my thoughts on the report of the Bones Commission. I now want to tackle what has proven to be the most controversial aspect of the report. The creation of the Chief Officers Group or COG.
The difference between management and governance
In looking at the COG and assessing whether it will work as a useful reform to the organisation of the Liberal Democrats and be of benefit to the Party we need to have some kind of framework of understanding of how organisations like the Party should be run. It is important to establish that there is a difference between management and governance. Management is the supervision of the activities that an organisation does to achieve its objectives. Governance is deciding what those objectives are and making sure that they further the interests of those who “own” the organisation.
The neatest description of the difference between management and governance that I’ve found on the web is;
“Governance is about having the right policy and procedures in place to ensure the right things are done. Management is about doing the things right.”
For small organisations with simple objectives the practical difference between the two can be slight. But in the commercial world issues around corporate governance and its relationship with management are a hot topic. As a councillor I’ve seen the differences between governance and management play out in the different and sometimes conflicting roles of the member as opposed to that of the chief executive and other senior officers. However, whatever the nature, purpose or size of an organisation it seems to me natural that it will get itself into trouble if it confuses the two functions and fails to pay proper attention to one or the other. Good governance is as important as good management.
Does Bones get it?
So how good are the Liberal Democrats at doing both the governance and management functions within our organisation? Well, the obvious answer is not as good as we should be.
Having never been a Party employee or significantly involved at Federal level I tend to be cautious about commenting on how good our management is. Yet I am sure there are things we can do to improve. However, I have argued before that we have had significant failings in the way that governance has been conducted and have been particularly critical of the performance of the Federal Executive and the position of Party President. I have said that we have;
“significant structural weakness within the organisation of the Liberal Democrats. At the heart of the party there is an absence of effective organisational leadership.”
One of the very welcome aspects of the Bones report is that it both recognises the difference between the governance and management functions and is critical of the Party for failing to get this right.
Firstly it says;
“In the vast majority of voluntary organisations in the UK there is an established difference in role between the top governance body, the volunteer organisation and the professionals they employ.”
It then recognises that the Party’s Constitution “reflects this as a principle” but is greatly concerned that in practice there is a great deal of confusion leading to “accusations of a lack of transparency for key decisions” and “a confusion between the role of democracy vs. that of party leadership vs. that of management of the party’s resources”.
This analysis is sound. Bones recognises that there is confusion within the Party structures between the different Party bodies and the management and governance functions. It recognises that this has led to a lack of transparency in decision making and is a key cause of many of our problems. In this sense I am very glad that Bones “gets it”.
To address this problem it then goes on to outline a series of reforms to the internal structures and procedures of the Party. There is much here that I agree with. It calls for a much more professional approach to resource allocation, better management and better treatment of Party staff at all levels, a greater role for the regions, a more proactive support for potential areas of growth, and a more focused and centrally directed approach to campaigning. Much of this is frankly long overdue. In demanding a significant sharpening up of the Party’s ability to do things, what the report scarily calls our “execution capability”, I am fully behind it.
However, the positive ideas in the report that I feel comfortable endorsing are by and large about improving the management of the Party. Those ideas that are about improving the governance of the Party, which are much fewer in number, are at best weak and at worst positively damaging. This is where the Chief Officers Group comes in.
The Chief Officers Group
One thing that I learnt from the reading the full report that I had not previously been aware of is that the Chief Officers Group already exists within the Party structures. This was a surprise as I have never heard of it before. To be fair the report itself admits that “the current mandate of this group is unclear and its existence not widely known”.
However, the Bones report recommends that this obscure body is transformed into the most important body within the Party structures. It is to hoover up powers from the Federal Finance and Administration Committee, POLD, the Federal Executive and Federal Conference Committee, and the English Council. The COG will also assert control over the State and Regional Parties.
This is how the COG is described in the executive summary of the report;
“This group will act as a Management Board for the party and will bring together all the key stakeholders and leaders in the party. It will be the role of COG to set the party’s budget and strategy and for ensuring its successful implementation. This will require a number of delegations from existing committees of some of their authorities and budget setting powers; in return these committees will be able to approve and scrutinise the decisions that are being taken by the COG.”
Lets look at that in detail. It is to be a management board so is presumably to be concerned with management. Yet it is to be a representative body bringing together all the key stakeholders and leaders in the Party so is presumably to have a governance function. It will set the party’s budget and strategy – is that a management or governance function or both? And then be responsible for ensuring its successful implementation – again is that a management or governance function?
Then there is the relationship that the COG has with the existing Party bodies established in our constitution. It may be that I have been made cynical by 5 years as a local councillor but when someone says that you will be allowed to “approve and scrutinise” decisions I become suspicious that I am being asked to be a rubber stamp. I find “scrutiny” of limited value without the power to make and enforce real decisions and “approval” of other people’s decisions pointless without the ability to develop and choose alternative options.
Appendix 3 of the full report describes the COG thus;
“The Chief Officers Group is charged with the management of the Party, which means among other things, that it is responsible for determining the Party’s overall objectives and strategy, as well as ensuring delivery of results.”
It does the management of the Party but also does the “determining” of our objectives and strategy. This is not “implementing” objectives established elsewhere, such as by Conference or the constitutionally charged Federal Executive. So is the COG playing a role in management, or in governance, or in both.
In short it seems to me that rather than clarifying the role of the different Party bodies, making clearer the distinction between governance and management, and making decision-making more transparent, the creation of the COG will have exactly the opposite effect.
Will the COG work?
Then there is the question of whether the COG will actually be effective in achieving its stated aims. The model of the Party that the COG seems to fit in with is one of a leadership, supported by professional staff, at the centre and then a mass of members and supporters out in the country. However, this is an unrealistic model. Many of those who would be classed as “staff” in another type of organisation are actually volunteers who give up far more time than the odd evening. The middle ground of the activist appears to be left out.
Bones has very little to say about the role of the “activist”, which is I believe a different one to that of the “volunteer”. We do rely on supporters to donate money and deliver leaflets but we also rely on activists to organise campaigning, raise funds, train other activists, manage the candidate approval process, and a myriad of other tasks that make up the Party. We will not reform our organisation or achieve the change we need to reach our goals if we do not engage and convince our activists. I don’t really see how the COG helps us do this.
I have written before that the Liberal Democrats are not Microsoft. You can’t just issue a memo and expect the organisation to leap into action and that applies whether the memo is written by the COG or anyone else.
If we are to move towards a more directed, and indeed more centralised, structure for the management of our campaigning, which is probably the right approach, we also have to recognise that this makes it more important that we strengthen the democratic accountability of the Party through its governance structures. Failure to do so will mean that the new way of doing business will by many be seen as illegitimate and constantly challenged. The Bones Report is very good at arguing for the more directed management approach, but fails to deal with the issues of governance.
It is only half the answer.
Should we work with or against the Constitution
I think part of Bones’ failure to come up with a holistic solution to the problem it correctly identifies is in its confused attitude to the Constitution of the Liberal Democrats.
It states that its remit is to propose changes “within the context of the current constitution”. It is quite clear in saying that it is not a constitutional review. Yet the creation of the COG shows that it is straining against the current provisions of the Constitution. The way the COG is envisioned suggests a real potential to actually subvert the Constitution. It then goes on to say that there may be a need for constitutional changes in the future.
I find it surprising for a Party that talks and thinks so much about constitutional reform nationally we are so bad at talking properly about our own constitutional arrangements. If there are people who want to argue that our current constitution is broken then they should do so openly and suggests reforms. Adding new structures to try and work round it will only lead to confusion and conflict. We need to work with the grain of what we have got and not against.
In conclusion I want to return to the point I was making back in April about the role of the Party President but to put it in a wider context. We need to reform the way the Party is run but we do not need to rewrite the Constitution or add new bodies to the Party structure. What we need to do is to make the existing structures work properly.
We can start by getting the Party President to actually fulfil the role set out for it in the Constitution and by getting the Federal Executive to actually do the job it is supposed to do.
This content was originally posted on my old Process Guy blog.