The Bones Commission

Yes. The Bones Commission

I can almost hear a collective snort.  Already, on the Lib Dem blogosphere at least, the words ‘Bones Commission’ and ‘derision’ are starting to sound like committed companions.

Why is that so?  When so many of us really have no idea of what’s in it and the few places where we have been given an idea of what it contains are more interested in selling copy and stirring the radical in us all then actually being accurate. 

Those of us who know people on the various committees, FE and FPC, may well have heard a bit more, but even then it is only hearsay as nobody has actually been given anything on a piece of paper. 

Personally, I’m relaxed about the content of the Bones Commission; but then I don’t sit on any body that it’s looking to change, unless it has something very urgent to say about the London Policy Committee, which I doubt.  And even so, I’m with Paul Walter on this, what did we expect? That the Commission would come to the conclusion that more people needed to be involved in making each decision?  No, I’m relaxed, I get my opportunity to vote in the leader and to vote in the members of the constitutional committees and frankly that’s about as democratic as I need it. I don’t need to make every decision but I do need to be clear on what is happening.

The problem for me is not in the content of the Bones Commission but in its implementation. Because in truth (and I would say this, wouldn’t I?) the tricky bit of change is not developing the strategy; it is not saying we are at A and we need to be at B, although all that needs to be done.  It is about implementing the change, it is about actually changing the way the organisation does things in order to bring about B, getting people to do one thing when they’ve spent the last 10 years doing another.  And dull, dull, dull though it may be, the lion’s share of that activity and the trick to getting your transformational change, or ‘reforms’ as they are framed in the Bones Commission in without too much pain or reputational risk, is communication.

Clearly, I am not the only person to notice this: James Graham, almost understates it, in his Comment is free article when he says:

“The key problem within the party at the moment appears to be a lack of effective internal communication”.

My gut feeling is that the edifice of the party’s internal communication has not suddenly turned into a pile of rubble, but that the communication of the Bones Commission is being handled with such ineptness that is places a pall of suspicion over everything else.

So, where are they going wrong?

Well, broadly, as I mentioned in a comment on Stephen Tall’s piece on Lib Dem Voice they are treating transformational change of an organisation as if it were a policy implementation.  To be fair I do detect, in the manner of one of the characters in CSI:Miami, some evidence of someone having a think about stakeholders.  Clearly, there has been some plan around communication of the Reform Commission Findings to the Federal Executive and other constitutional bodies.  We know this not because there have been any formal communication telling us what is happening when but because those on the Federal Executive read their agendas and passed it on to others by word of mouth or via The Liberator.

So, it seems they have ignored the needs rest of the party and Nick’s filler message on Lib Dem Voice served only to incense people more, on account of the fact that it seemed to have been put together from a magnetic poetry fridge set.  This is bad planning; in fact, this is no planning.  I cannot understand this as of course, Chris Bones, has worked for some pretty big companies, all of which will have implemented large scale organisational change. But they are already losing control of the story and they don’t seem to be doing anything to get it back.

So, why do they have to communicate with even those who have no say?  Why is the content of the Bones Commission fundamentally different from a policy paper, even a controversial one like Trident or the Taxation document?

Well, the key is the stake that we all have in what the party does because ultimately we are the ones that will do it.  Party policy is important to us and is something that we, Lib Dems, pride ourselves on.  However, policy is what we plan to get the civil service to do in the future.  It is not what we expect ourselves to do now.  Asking people to change the way they do things is prey to much more adverse emotion than asking them to agree to the fact that someone else will have to change. Most people are happy with change happening to other people (especially when it’s in the future) but very few of us like having to change ourselves.  Especially, as an aside, in my experience those who are responsible for delivering change.

It takes a lot of thoughtful communication to get people to feel OK about change and not just when you’ve got something to say; you have to communicate when you don’t have anything to say, especially if you want to avoid rumours of impending doom taking place.

I can see, and I’m sure most of us can concur, that those we have elected to the federal committees should be able to absorb and respond to the changes ahead of the general public and membership.  After all, the Policy Committee gets to see Policy Papers before the working group makes them public.  It is highly likely that the results of the Party Reform Commission are not ready to be shared with everybody.  That’s fine, but what Nick and the team should have done is to set out a timetable for when more information is coming out.  They ought to be communicating regularly on the progress of the commission through all the party organisations even if they can’t tell us the content.  They should have conviction enough to set out a timetable, even if in the end they have to replan the timetable.

People are worried about their party, because they are worried that they way they make their contribution will have to be curtailed or changed.  This is an emotional response and a valid one.  People are uncertain about their future and because we are all human beings first (well, almost all of us) we are worrying possibly quite unnecessarily about the future.

I agree with James Graham, Tom is wrong when he asserts we should all just stop moaning; after all the vast majority of us give our time completely free, many of us give money and the Liberal Democrat Party is just as much mine as it is Nick’s. My time is precious and I want it to be used as effectively as possible and The Bones Commission may change that (at the moment, I’m hoping it will be for the better); why shouldn’t I care?

So, Nick, Chris and the rest of those responsible for delivering the Bones Commission’s findings, put your party out of it’s misery, not necessarily by giving in to Martin Land’s request (although I empathise with his angst completely) but by setting out a timetable for when and what sort of communication there will be.  Please trust us to be able to understand the process.

It won’t stop all the rumours and you won’t keep everybody happy.  It will, however, comfort many of us, make us feel valued and stop us getting suspicious of your silence.



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