Friday, January 24, 2014

Exit Interview: Liberal Party of Canada national membership secretary Matthew Certosimo

It was an ironic twist of fate that delegates to the Liberal Party of Canada’s 2012 biennial in Ottawa would vote to create a supporter system and elect a decided supporter system skeptic – Matthew Certosimo – as national membership secretary, with the task of creating and overseeing the system in time for the 2013 leadership race.

Two years later, with over 300,000 members and supporters having been recruited by the end of the leadership race, Certosimo is leaving office a confirmed supporter convert. Liberal delegates to February’s biennial convention in Montreal will elect his successor, and I recently spoke with Certosimo about his term, the supporter experiment, and how the next membership secretary can carry it forward.

The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

How would you describe the role of membership secretary?

I always felt from the beginning, and this was reinforced during my term, that is was a combination of cheerleader – someone whose job is to encourage participation in the party – and the rules person, an individual in a secretary capacity who works hard to ensure that those who become members and supporters do so in compliance with the rules and under the relevant bylaws, and the decision-making that falls on the shoulders of the national membership secretary to interpret the rules and issue interpretation bulletins. A combination of cheerleader/chief recruiter and rules person.

What were the goals you had set for yourself going in?

I talked during  my campaign about connect, engage and inspire being the three pillars of why I wanted the job.

I felt we had to do a better job of connecting the party at every level to enhance our ability to be more than just a party, but a movement. We had to do a better job welcoming people when they joined our movement and engage them. And third, we had to do things as a party and a movement that would make people want to be a part of the effort.

Some of that would fall to the parliamentary wing of the party, of course, but I felt the party itself, and the national membership secretary specifically, needed to keep the objective of motivation, of inspiring our supporters and members, at the front of centre of how we approach what we do.

And looking back now, how do you feel you did against those three pillars?

Frankly, I think we did a great job. The whole team, the table offices and the board, all deserve credit in this regard. We’ve had a pretty heavy agenda over the two years since the last biennial. I was fortunate to have great support from the board, the table officers, and especially our president, Mike (Crawley).

Right away, with the assistance of Rob Jamieson and the staff at the Ottawa office, we developed and implemented what I called Take Notice. In essence, it was a regular, automatic e-mail communication to every riding in the country with updates on new members, volunteers and donors, and eventually we added supporters. Before people didn’t know what was happening, they didn’t know how to use Liberalist to get updates, and there was a lot of concern about sharing this kind of information between the centre and the ridings. For both pragmatic and symbolic reasons, my first initiative after I became national membership secretary was to launch this communications vehicle. I heard across the country that the ridings were very appreciative of this; they really felt as though it enhanced the connection between the party office and each of the ridings.

On engagement, the entire effort around the launch of supporters was, of course, an engagement and recruitment initiative. I think we could say objectively that the supporter experiment was a tremendous success in engaging people beyond the narrow band of those who would be prepared to become a member, and encouraged them in participating at a level the party had never seen before.

It’s hard for me to comment on the inspiration. That would be for others to say. In terms of how I conducted myself, I tried to ensure the way we did what we did was always consistent with the principles of inclusion, transparency and openness, and what we walked the talk, and in doing so, I’m hoping that inspired people to trust and continue to be involved in our effort.

Looking back at our first leadership race under the supporter system, what worked well and what didn't?

We had to reconcile the idealistic objective of the supporter category being an open, accessible way for people who wouldn’t want to become members to get involved with our movement, with the more pragmatic concern many in the party had with the security and verifiability and legitimacy of the election of our leader.

Those are potentially conflicting principles, but we reconciled them through what I called the funnel model. It's wide open at the front end (letting supporters sign up with minimal data provided), and as we narrow it down towards the vote we increase the security around the legitimacy of the vote by requiring a supporter to register for the vote.

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have had to, for an online vote, put members through the registration process. If our system had the benefit of being built and programmed so that, when members went into our system, all the security measures related to their identity were in place, they wouldn’t have had to go through that process. If we’re looking at improvements for next time, we should lay the groundwork for members to be pre-registered, and have all the security measures around identity and so in place in our system.

Overall, I don’t think anyone can argue that having almost 130,000 people vote directly for the leader of our party was anything other than a tremendous success. It was the biggest national leadership election in our country’s history, and it was an accomplishment I believe we as a party should be tremendously proud of.

How can we continue building the supporter system outside of a leadership race?

I believe the supporter experiment taught us that those who had said different people want to engage in our party in different ways, and that we need to have structures in place with respect to that, were right. And I say that with humility and as a bit of a mea culpa, as I am a reformed supporter skeptic. I did not support the adoption of the supporter category, but I became a believer that it was the right decision by the party.

I think the next step is to build on the principles of a multi-level engagement model that allows people to become involved in our party at different levels and in different ways, as suits their particular preference. The free, easily accessible, relatively modest engagement category that is the supporter can be maintained and be a way of encouraging people to remain connected to the party, coming to the party with their ideas and the like, without taking out a membership.

And there are rights that come along with a membership, such as choosing candidates for the local nomination for the riding. That’s an incentive for someone to go up to the next level of engagement. I think that’s a perfectly reasonable and wise model to have in place.

Whether or not the party wants to consider further reforms of the membership model to make it easier for people to become members is, I think, something that deserves some further thought. When I ran for national membership secretary I was of the view that, rather than adopting a supporter category, we should look at making membership free. On reflection, I don’t think we need to do that – we can keep the supporter category as the free model of participation and charge something for membership, but we could consider whether it should be a membership fee or part and parcel with participation in the Victory Fund.

The main thing though is that we not be rigid in the categories or the different ways in which people can engage; I think that’s the key lesson from the supporter experience.

What would you say is the biggest challenge facing your successor?

The good news for my successor is that, unlike the last two years, he or she won’t have to launch the supporter category, build the infrastructure and then oversee the election of a leader.

They will be in place though as we move through the nomination process. Whomever takes on the role of national membership secretary will have to be involved in overseeing membership-related considerations relating to participation in nomination meetings across the country. They don’t run those meetings, but they must ensure the national membership registry is in place so there are limited disputes over the right to vote in nominations.

What advice would you give your successor?

Have fun. To be honest, and this is not a word of exaggeration, I was so inspired by this party over the last two years, and in particular the way people came forward and achieved the adoption of the supporter system, and then helped build what was ultimately a supporter category of over 300,000 people.

The leadership process that followed, all things considered, and despite the fact it was the first time we did something like this, was relatively pain-free because of the way the party rallied behind, accepted, and made work the supporter/member, one member one vote national leadership election. The effort of the new leader and the work the new leader has been doing since is the natural next step in what was really an inspirational evolution in our party’s history.

For the next national membership secretary, and the table offices and the board generally, it’s a fun time to be part of this movement, and I hope they’ll take the kind of inspiration from it that I was able to for the last two years.

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