Monday, October 03, 2011


Making It Easier To Follow Liberal Democrat Conference

Another Liberal Democrat Conference recedes into the distance: holding government ministers to account; debating policy (even nearly managing the rare feat of throwing out a policy paper); catching up with friends. But while it’s still fresh in Conference Committee’s minds, I have some small suggestions for next time. Talking to Lib Dems who may not have read every word of the Agenda or Conference Daily updates, and to people who were watching at home on BBC2 or BBC Parliament in their vast ratings of one or two, just a few simple changes could make Conference a lot easier to follow.

Have you ever come into a Conference debate having left your Agenda in your hotel room, by accident or through not wishing to add five minutes to your ‘physical security check’ by bringing a bag? Have you ever forgotten to pop by the information stand and pick up the Conference Daily sheets? Or have you ever watched some of Conference on TV, in which all of those items are conspicuously missing from the screen? Then rather than looking down at us as if we’re all insufficiently committed, perhaps the powers that be should consider admitting reality and making it easy for people to find out what’s going on at a glance, or in a sentence. And most of the work is already there – it just needs bringing together.

There is already an @LibDemConf Twitter account that announces the name of each debate as it starts. And there is already a supply of all the Conference papers online, if you know where to look and can navigate through all the many screens to get to them. But no attempt is ever made to bring these together. Why not tweet a link to the appropriate policy paper with the announcement of the start of each debate? And another, with a link to the Conference Agenda, also telling you on which page to find the motion under debate? And again, a link to the relevant Conference Daily to find any amendments, again highlighting the page number? All of this paperwork is already available online in pdf form, and it would be the work of moments to actually show people how to find it when it’s needed.

The same could be done within the Conference Hall, for the aid of representatives there and of people watching at home (or in their hotels). Perhaps BBC Parliament might be frosty about putting up non-BBC links, but it’s worth asking; if not, each debate speaker has a ginormous screen behind them onto which the Party projects their image and information about them. Why not add a web address and the simple message, ‘If you want to know what’s going on in this particular debate, enter this and it’ll tell you’?

You may well argue that every representative should assiduously read every bit of paperwork, that no-one should vote on an issue without hearing the whole debate, and that if proposers and summators of motions and amendments should be able to express clearly what their motions and amendments are about, and if they can’t, that’s their own lookout. But if you’re scrambling to find the bit of paper that would explain what line 4 of Amendment 3 says when the Chair of the session is briskly running through the votes, or if you’re at home without a steward standing by you to thrust paper into your hand, that’s not a lot of help.

So wouldn’t it be better if the Chair and Aide of each debate were not just to announce which website to go to, but to agree in advance a one-line factual description of each motion and amendment with their proposers? So that each debate could open not merely with a nebulous ‘Motion F72, More Regulation For A Freer Britain’, but with one scene-setting sentence that captures the main thrust – and, more importantly, the Chair could give those explanatory lines about the amendments at the end. Wouldn’t that blizzard of numbers make more sense if each vote on each amendment was preceded by one simple sentence that summarises in neutral terms what each contains? Particularly for all those debates where an amendment was not opposed and there’s not even a summator to remind you what you’re voting on. And for TV viewers, the combination of a simple guide from the Chair and a visible link to more information on the website would make the Conference a lot less incomprehensible.

These are simple changes, not time-consuming, with all the work of creating pdfs and putting them online already done. Why not just make them easier to find?

Of course, they all usually dry up sometime after each Conference, making it difficult to locate our policy once we’ve actually passed it, and there are no hyperlinking cross-references in the online papers (note the several just this year that referred to the excellent but long-deleted Policy Paper 50: It’s About Freedom from a decade ago, removed from the Party website and sold out from the Party publishers, as if we all have it kept by our bedsides as light reading matter). But making the current Conference paperwork more accessible would be a start.

This article was written last week as I slowly recovered from the previous week’s Conference, and submitted on spec for publication on Liberal Democrat Voice, where it went up yesterday. It’s a little more constructive than the piece I wrote at the same time about the Conference Hotel


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