Thursday, September 03, 2009

Day One: Policy Committee

Most of the first day in Hove has been made up of the business of getting conference started, hugging old friends and legalistic arguments about how to conduct 'bullshit bingo'. Does it count if you say the buzzwords yourself for example? Clearly not, that would be wrong.

One of the interesting sessions I attended was the thrilling roller-coaster entitled 'policy committee report' in which we had a (genuinely) interesting discussion about how we formulate policy as a political party. Now, I'm going to stray into the 'what I reckon' territory here, but it was all said so let's count this as a report of the session.

One of the interesting things about our rather convoluted structure is that we have a Record of Policy Statements (ROPS) which is for up to the minute responses, the Manifesto for a Sustainable Society (MfSS) which contains all our policy and then we produce a Manifesto for each election we fight. Having two documents called a manifesto is not just confusing it also creates a difficulty around the status of each document.

I've now heard a number of people say we should rename the MfSS, and I really hope that translates into concrete proposals, my preference is for Policies for a Sustainable Society, which will help clarify, I think, the difference between the gargantuan document with every policy and the election manifesto that outlines where our party's priorities lie at any given time, without downgrading the status of what is currently called the MfSS.

However, whilst that is essentially a housekeeping issue the way in which the party produces policy is far more important. Whilst the formal process we have is, in my view, reasonably robust the culture around our policy documents is a little more lax.

Policy: too detailed, too unwieldy

Essentially we allow extremely detailed motions, with lots of facts and figures that go out of date very quickly, to get passed because we generally approve of them when we should be looking to more concise, punchy policy that gives the party guidance without creating hostages to fortune.

I'd also say that to some extent we fetishise policy motions. The fact is the party has plenty of things to say about issues that have not been precisely covered in a conference motion. We're not hampered by an absence of policy, but we are hampered when we have the wrong policy - or one that has a problem in it, that may only become obvious over the time.

For me the solution to this is to have less policy, and I'm definitely not alone in this. I'd like to see us produce more documents and briefings that our campaigners can use on a whole range of issues which don't need to have the status of policy in order to be useful and have the advantage that they can be written to be readable and can be distributed widely - as long as they are within the guidelines that policy has set out that's fine.

Our MEPs already produce some great examples of this (the example I often use is Jean Lambert's Working Time Directive briefing) and there's no reason why other parts of the party, like working groups, can't produce work of similar high quality as long as they are aimed at popularising the Green agenda rather than making some pedantic point and that speaks only to ourselves.

Part of this cutting down the policy is about recognising that we don't have to dot every i and cross every t. It's also about creating a culture where we amend out of motions anything that doesn't really need to be there, whilst keeping the substance. I guess my concern is that sometimes we spend too much time trying to win an argument within our own circles when we should be trying to win the broader arguments in society.

Making policy making an open process

My last point is this. Ultimately policy is voted on by conference. Conference is made up of several hundred activists who do not all possess expertise in every area of policy that comes before them. I'm happy for that to happen, but we need to make sure that before we get to that point our policy has been given as wide a consultation by experts both inside and outside of the party in order to ensure we can make an informed decision.

Creating a more open culture of policy formation, possibly including think tanks and certainly debate from all sides, where we can say very clearly that we had the best advise possible and where all the extra detail goes into briefings rather than the policy itself would, in my view, make our policy documents sharper, better and help the party become more outward looking in its approach.


Dave Riley said...

On Opening up Policy Development:Inasmuch as we have engineered it we are trying to develop Socialist Alliance policy here in Australia by using our national wiki. Part of this also means that we use our network of campaign egroups -- open to members and some supporters. This combination was used very effectively in developing our Climate Change Charter . The one complication is membership IT skill and confidence level and preference so when opening up the business of policy development you have to open up several access gates and work extra hard to draw any threads together in the final edits: branch real time discussions, singular emails, meeting minutes, etc.

We also use our national journal, Alliance Voices as a forum for discussion. We have recently launched a national weekly short eNewsletter, which carries items of news ,reports, profiles and promotions.

We use a similar collective strategy for drafting key statements and SA literature depending on which sector of the SA they emanate from.So we are using a lot of Web 2.0 strategies to open up these tasks.

I wish we were all in sync and proficient with such technologies but we aren't, however the aptitude is rising sharply. If we can do more in way of formally promoting greater access and collective input, I'm open to any suggestions.

ModernityBlog said...

good luck Jim, and please let us know about the stem cell research policies after the conference has finished.

Jim Jay said...

Mod; good session on the NHS, research and treatments today. I'm going to blog it tomorrow though as it fits well with the science and technology working group launch tomorrow that is looking to overhaul some of the, cough, less adequate, cough, policy areas.