Hello, I’m from Atos and I’m calling about your Lib Dem membership

The Liberal Democrat English Party has been considering radical changes to its own operation and other parts of the party as part of its post-election review.

The English Council Executive (ECE) has now agreed a set of proposals, which are an intriguing mix of the very good, the incomplete and the very risky. Here are four in particular to chew over.

Abolishing indirect elections

Let’s start with the two that are good in varying degrees: improving internal democracy and introducing a registered supporters scheme.

The plan is to abolish the current opaque set of multi-layered indirect elections in the English Party, and instead move to a system of direct elections in which all party members get to vote.

The English Party Executive (ECE) would become a mix of regional party chairs, who would be elected directly by all members in their regions, and officeholders for specific portfolios such as chair, campaigns and candidates, who would also be directly elected by members in England.

This all presumes that a continuing English Party of fairly similar remit is the right answer (something of which I’m not sure), but if it is to continue in that way, a simpler, directer democracy is good.

What is not clear is where the sort of scrutiny which non-exec directors – not only of companies but also of voluntary organisations – are meant to provide would come from. The current setup doesn’t provide that much of it, but the reformed setup should aim rather higher than that. A set of directly elected members with that specific scrutiny function, for example.

Overall though, what is proposed would be better than the existing setup.

Introducing a registered supporters scheme

Likewise it is good to see the proposal for a registered supporters scheme, something I’ve written about before in Why you should create a local ‘Friends of the Liberal Democrats’ scheme.

The earlier ideas that were floating around of linking registered supporters to voting rights in party selections has been wisely dropped in the light of what happened in Labour. Better indeed to concentrate on building up stronger links with the wider network of supporters and helpers without muddying it up with how candidates are selected.

Outsourcing membership

Now, on to Atos. Why has there been quiet talk about how Atos or another similar firm might be asked to take over Liberal Democrat membership services? It is because the English Party has been sounding out options for outsourcing the servicing of membership from party HQ in London (for members of the party in England).

As the strategy paper says, “[We should] consider outsourcing of the management of member (and supporter) recruitment and renewal processing and record keeping, if this can provide improved access to data for all parts of the party at a lower cost.”

Given how little of membership work is done by post now (which used to be outsourced from London back when there was rather more of it), this amounts to outsourcing the party’s membership database and/or the phone bank operation in London.

Sounding out someone like Atos is wise in terms of seeing whether this is practical. It also shows the risks and likely unpopularity of such an approach.

I’ve certainly had the odd phone calls where I think the person making them is not really knowledgeable enough, so I can understand the motivation to think ‘this should be better’. But outsourcing phone bank operations is hardly a shining example of how to get a higher quality, better informed team of callers.

Especially as the phone bank is not just an outgoing operation, it is also the operation which handles incoming queries, varying from a membership direct debit payment via a question about where to get the party logo through to an election law problem. That requires a wide range of knowledge about the details of how the party operates, making it one of the classic scenarios where outsourcing can really struggle.

Moreover the existing phone bank infrastructure in London is also widely used by volunteer callers for telephone canvassing and membership development work. That opportunity would be lost by outsourcing. Better, instead, to look at the costs of running the phone bank operation from the party’s offices in Scotland, Wales and elsewhere – where costs may be lower, whilst retaining the integration with the party and the facilities for volunteers use.

Nor is the idea of outsourcing membership records one that looks much better. It does not come with obvious accolades, witness the past Labour Party troubles.

Moreover, most of the very real issues about membership data in the Liberal Democrats are about it not being fully integrated with our other data and operations. How will outsourcing it help with that?

Fragmenting staff structures

Devolving power to the lowest level possible is a normal Liberal Democrat instinct. Add to that the combination of a highly centralised target seat operation in May and only a single digit haul of MPs, and it is easy to see why the English Party’s strategy paper wants to break up the current federal campaigns structure so that “the limited resources available [are] placed as near to the ground as possible”. The English Party wants an end to the pattern of centrally employed campaigns officers in favour of “every region in England to have at least one full time campaigns officer whose work will be directed by that region”. Moreover targeting decisions should become “the accountability of regional executives”.

Easy to see why that is proposed, but is it wise? In short: no, because it runs counter to the lessons of not only 2015 but also of previous general elections.

The party used to have pretty much just such a regionally based structure. (For shorthand I am using regions here to mean regions in England plus the nations of Scotland and Wales.)

Back in the 1990s this was the norm and the party deliberately moved away from it to a centrally employed team along with a centrally agreed targeting plan for a multiplicity of reasons which are still very applicable.

Employing staff well is not trivial and it requires both technical skills and significant time. It turned out to be much more effective to share these services centrally rather than fragment them across the regions. One central team also made it much easier to train staff, provide a degree of career progression and provide mutual support. It also reduced hugely the amount of time spent in meetings discussing staff budgets and plans – a non-trivial issue given quite how time consuming that was at times, and how badly staff were sometimes treated.

Of course it is possible that devolving / fragmenting the party’s campaign staff structure to replicate what was previously abandoned could be done much better this time. Disappointingly, however, that English Party strategy paper does not go through the lessons from the past and how to learn from them. Rather, it does not mention them – a very risky approach to take.

Moreover, there are two specific lessons from May 2015 which the fragmentation plan runs exactly counter to. First, it is clear from the results that the party had too broad a targeting strategy even though – most unusually – several held seats had been written off long before polling day. Were English regions the champion of tighter targeting and the central team foolishly ignoring them? No. It was the central team that was pushing for tighter targeting and the more anyone else was involved, the wider the targeting got.*

Of course, we all make mistakes, and the wiser of us learn from them. So the fact that – for example – in Cornwall regional funds were heavily spent in seats which Great George Street had given up on (and in which we crashed to distant defeat) does not mean that regions or others might not get it right in the future.

But again the English Party’s strategy review seems to be curiously silent on the past. Coming off an election where the regions overall were more wrong than party HQ in London makes the idea that more power should go to the regions in future a “brave” decision. Possibly right – but again, as with fragmenting the staff structure, what is striking about the strategy paper is that it neither states nor addresses the problem. A very risky approach, once again.

All the more so as there is another lesson from the 2015 general election which this fragmentation runs against. It is that there are increasingly advanced, specialist skills which the party is falling behind on.

The problem with having one regionally focused campaigns officer per region is that it forces them into being a jack-of-all-trades, a bit good at everything but not able to specialise in any one area. Yet when it comes to data handling and analysis, direct mail segmentation, online advertising or social media support – to name but four – there are increasingly sophisticated and effective opportunities which require dedicated expertise beyond what someone who is expected to do a bit of everything can manage.

Perhaps there is a way of reconciling geographic coverage with having different staff have their own specialisms via the sort of matrix structures that some organisations use. Making such matrix structures work is no minor task and they can go badly wrong.

So does the English Party strategy paper set out an understanding of the need to address this with its staffing plans and even propose some solutions? No and no.

And finally there is the minor matter of shifting resources. At least one campaigns officer in every region does not equate to the balance of opportunities we have for winning seats in different regions. It would enforce a degree of uniformity out of kilter both with geography (regions vary greatly in size) and out of kilter with that political reality.

It would be a bold move to say we should move away from the idea of concentrating staff resources to reflect the size of regions and the prevalence of winnable seats.

Does the English Party grasp such boldness? Well, not really – because again it goes unsaid, and hence any thought on how to address the downsides of such boldness is missing.

It seems more to be boldness without full thought, and that often ends up being recklessness.

You may notice the theme here: there are many lessons from the recent and not so recent past, not to mention from a look at a map and book of election results, which suggest the English Party’s plans to give its component parts more power at the expense of the federal party would not work.

A really good plan to do that would face up to these points and have credible solutions to them. Alas, the English Party’s strategy paper – in its current incarnation – does neither.

UPDATE: All the more so given the strategy paper’s approach to Scotland and Wales.

* Save arguably for Scotland, where in early 2015 senior figures in the Scottish Party, including Willie Rennie, were expecting a suddenly organised visit by campaign staff from London to result in the party closing down its efforts to hold seats in Scotland. Instead, the message they heard was that there was a “route to victory” in all 11 seats, and later in the campaign the party put extra effort into some Scottish seats buoyed by the data then available. Ryan Coetzee had even put a bet on Alan Reid holding his seat. He lost by 8,473.

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