Ask Questions

For a different perspective, here’s a post by David Eaves:

Liberal Renewal: Identify Good Questions, Not Answers

The following was a memo I wrote for some friends back in May, 2006 as the Liberal Renewal Commission was just getting going. I was sensing that we needed a process that was emergent – one that leveraged its reputation (and meager resources) not to do something top down, but facilitate something bottom-up.

Recently a friend asked me to dig it up. After a little touch up, I thought I’d post it, as I believe much of it is as true to today as it was two years ago.

Memo: How Can the Liberal Party Renewal Committee maximize its impact?

Most Liberals agree the party needs to re-examine its policies, priorities and ideology to ascertain what, if anything, must change to enable the it to regain office.

The process and output of the Renewal Committee will determine its reception both among party members and the leadership candidates. This one pager assessment will argue that, to maximize its impact the committee should help define the debate liberals – through their leadership candidates – must have, not resolve it.

A robust output that outlines a new liberal party platform will likely have little impact. First, leadership candidates will be disinclined to use it. Adopting the committee’s recommendations could either damage the candidates credibility as an innovative thinker (they are ‘borrowing’ someone else’s work) or, more likely, candidates will ignore the recommendations as they won’t allow them to distinguish themselves from their opponents. Second, for a liberal party platform to be credible it must, in some capacity, emerge and/or receive buy-in from the grassroots of the party. This isn’t a plea for wide spread consultations. However, the opposite, hand picking a group of ‘best and brightest’ risks alienating members not included in the process and undermines the democratic ideals that should be core to the party’s DNA. Sitting on the civic engagement committee, I am forced to wonder how does this process measure up against the standards of engagement our policy recommendations will suggest for government programs?

How then can the Renewal Committee have impact, in the midst of a leadership race and without conducting broad, time consuming and questionably helpful consultations?

The liberal party does not need answers. The key to solving any problem, including the renewal of the Liberal Party and the creation of a platform, it is in ascertaining the right questions. The Renewal Committee should thus do two things: 1) Determine what, for each sub-committee topic, are the three emerging questions ANY political party must possess answers for to be the dominant Canadian political force in the 21st century. 2) Provide some criteria for an effective answers and some initial insights. Committee members could then publicly sign a letter committing themselves to pressing the leadership candidates for answers to each of the questions – a test to their capacity for leadership of the party and country for not just the next election, but for the 21st century.

This approach will maximize the impact of the committee by enabling it to provoke a real debate within the leadership race and, ultimately, among party members. If the commission simply provides answers it will alienate the leadership candidates and the party at large. By asking questions it can attempt to position itself as a force for thinking about and opening up, the debate over liberalism and ideas. Moreover, by asking questions it enables all members to participate in this process – by proposing answers – and can ensure that the issues the committee believes to be essential to renewal are placed front and centre.