Monday, May 09, 2011

Reforming the Liberal Party: At the top, part two

On Saturday, I described how a top-down mentality drives the Liberal Party, and why the party needs to be re-oriented to a structure devoted to putting riding associations first and giving local organizations the resources and support they need to grow the party on the ground. Today, I'd like to begin to consider how we can make that happen.

A major challenge that is going to force much change in the party, whether we like it or not, is money. We got a lot fewer votes in 2011 than in 2008, which means a dramatic reduction in the per vote subsidy we receive from the taxpayers. And with the Conservative majority about to kill that program, it may reduce all the way to 0 before the next payment is due. The loss of official opposition status means the loss of budget for staff and research. And as a third-place party with 34 seats, we'll find it even harder to raise money that we did before. We reportedly did fundraise well during the campaign, but it's going to be very difficult.

This money challenge is going to make dramatic reforms in party structure and operation a financial necessity. I also, though, think it provides an opportunity to examine our bloated structure, determine if it is really serving our needs, and build a new leaner, streamlined model dedicated to supporting the volunteer organization at the riding level.

The Liberal Party is unique amongst the major parties in that it's structured as a federation of provincial and territorial associations (PTAs). It's almost like the U.S. with strong states and a somewhat weak federal government, although reforms in recent years have moved more power to the centre. Still, rules vary greatly from province to province. In Ontario, for example, ridings get a cut of membership sales while in B.C., ridings get nothing. And a lot of paper is still pushed at the provincial level, with the necessary infrastructure in place to support it. That means renting offices and paying staff at the PTA level, as well as supporting a large national office.

We've traditionally viewed this as an advantage; PTAs keep us closer to the regions offering a better level of service and ensuring the party stays responsive to all parts of the country. I think it's time to ask ourselves, though, can we still afford to support an expensive PTA structure, and is it serving our needs? I'm still thinking this one through, but I'm inclined to say no, we can't and no, it's not.

I'm not sure I'm ready to abandon the PTA model completely. But we uploaded some functions like membership to the national level a few years ago for economies of scale and efficiency of service, and I think it's time to upload any remaining services to the national level and no longer have offices or staff at the provincial level. We just can't afford it. If we do keep the federated structure, it should be the volunteer executive only. Other functions, such as banking, should be devolved to the riding level.

It may be time to consider abandoning the federated structure all together and restructuring as a national organization. We already have the council of presidents, which provides equal representation to each riding and can be strengthened further to compensate for the loss of PTAs. We could also consider electing provincial VPs to the national executive to replace the PTA presidents which sit on exec today, although I'd prefer removing bloat from that body. I know abandoning PTAs will be controversial, but we need to think outside the box and ask ourselves: is this really delivering needed value and is it worth the investment, or is it just another opportunity for people to have titles?

At the national level, we'll need to restructure and make cuts as well. The office staff is by necessity going to need to be a lot smaller. It will need to be reoriented to focus on core services: membership processing and riding support. We'll need a complete re-evaluation of fundraising to determine if it's delivering value in the current model or not. Fundraising should pay for itself, and if it's not there's obviously a problem.

We need to ask hard questions here too. They won't be easy, and they will be controversial, but if we don't ask them and openly consider them we're not doing ourselves any favours.

For example, do we really need a youth commission, a seniors commission, a womens commission and an aboriginal peoples commission, each with their own executive, activities and infrastructure? Again we're unique among the other parties with this structure, so we should ask are we achieving more inclusivity in these areas with this structure than other parties are, and is it worth the investment in money, as well as energy and resources?

What I'd like to see is a smaller national executive (the current body is way too large, and costs too much to support) with reduced power closely defined by a re-written constitution. Move more decision-making power to the Council of Presidents, who are directly answerable to and serve the needs of the 308 riding associations across Canada. I would also like to prevent caucus members from running for party office: caucus has ample opportunity to influence our direction, the executive should be left to the members.

Streamlining the PTA and national structure is fiscally necessary, but if we cut far enough it may end the situation where so much of every dollar generated locally is sucked-up to support this infrastructure with little value provided back down. That would mean more resources to help ridings organize and build on the ground. Those dollars are better spent on the ground where the voters are than in in Ottawa, Toronto or Vancouver. The streamlining would have a further desirable effect, however: reducing the power of the national and provincial organizations and putting it in the hands of the riding organizations.

It's time for a dramatic re-think of how our party is structured and how it operates, and no topic should be taboo. The debate must be open and free, and everything needs to be on the table. And the question I'll be asking as we examine every party of the operation is this: how does this help ridings organize and grow? If it doesn't, it may not survive.

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Dan F said...

Our party should be a reflection of our vision for the country. If we believe in a strong Federal government, the structure of our party should reflect that. Responsibilities that can benefit from economies of scale should fall to the national office, and efforts that require our volunteers to be the boots on the ground should be at the riding level.

Dan F said...

We also need to stop with this amending the constitution every time an unusual scenario arises. Constitutions should be nearly set in stone, but allow sufficient flexibility that we can adapt to unusual circumstances within the bounds of the existing constitution. For example: perhaps the leadership contest must be within 6 months, *unless* 2/3rds of National Executive, or 2/3rds of caucus (or both?) approve a different timeline. Higher threshold, but allows for changes in unusual circumstances (which turns out to be most of the time)

WesternGrit said...

Very good... and very similar to my thoughts on the matter (as per my blog). I wholly agree that we need to close the local/territorial offices. In Vancouver we have an LPCBC office in the downtown core. No-one can see it driving by (it's in a high-rise tower - very expensive real estate by the way), it does nothing (in and of it's own) to promote the party, there is no free parking, and access to it for our suburban stalwarts (areas we lost key support) involved crossing 3 to 4 cities on the way. Not practical in the least - and it cost us a fortune.

Now imagine if all that cost of real estate and staff was spent on a targeted year-round ad campaign? We know how successful year-round political ads can be. Heck, you can be in government, and even break election laws, and the public will STILL vote for you - in even larger numbers!

We have to re-prioritize. I'd also like to see a better vetting process for our paid staff. There are some great people who've been life-long volunteers, but we also have some bloat (okay, a lot of bloat).