Progressive Futures

Change or die

22 August 2016

How can traditional parties innovate in order to survive?

Hanno Burmester

Traditional party organisations all over Europe are facing existential crises. Their organisational paradigms do not fit our times. Parties work very much as they did in the 1950s. Like large corporations, their structure hinders successful innovation instead of promoting it. This not only limits their capacity to recruit high-skilled talent, but also to develop gold-standard programmatic ideas from the bottom up. While constantly asking their voters to change, most traditional parties fail to do exactly this.

At the same time, our societies need those parties, arguably more than ever. No other institution is able to master the complexities of our democratic systems with such a depth of knowledge and experience. No other institution is willing to focus its activities on the common interest, instead of focusing on special interest like NGOs do. Also, no other institution provides comparable potential for intra-societal dialogue and understanding – something we need more than ever in our increasingly disparate societies.

In our multi-partisan and interdisciplinary project, we thought about how German parties can innovate more successfully than today. We believe that parties must master change a lot more boldly and, first and foremost, strategically, in order to live up to their potential. In order to do so, they must transcend their current cultures and structures.

Stop to positively discriminate those who oppose change

Like most organisations I work with, parties positively discriminate those who obstruct change. People who want to initiate a project or change something in their organisational realm must pitch and defend their ideas – they are the ones who are supposed to deliver the evidence that innovation would be better than the status quo. This mostly means that innovation gets shot down before really unfolding its potential: in today’s meeting culture, we tend to corrode and destruct instead of improving and developing ownership for new thoughts and ideas.

Why not change this setting and turn it upside down? People with new ideas should be empowered instead of discouraged. Parties should equip them with a clear set of rights and rules: find a specific number of allies for your ideas. Map out clearly what the benefits would be once your innovation is implemented. Formulate potential downsides. Map out your implementation strategy. These perspectives should be brought forward in a meeting – to be collectively improved.

Change the default setting: From killing ideas to rapid prototyping

The substantive game changer: whoever wants to obstruct the innovation needs straight evidence in order to substantiate a veto. If there is no such evidence, the person who wants to change can go ahead and just do so. Instead of rolling out something big, the change agent builds a prototype. This small-scale experiment delivers data and information with regards to how the project needs to adjusted and improved. This is done in a second phase of the project, after a collective evaluation of the initial phase.

To put this short: parties can learn from the IT world where millions of people, especially in agile environments, successfully work that way. It would catalyse change efforts in notoriously slow party organisations if they shifted their default setting from ‘idea-discussion-dead’ to ‘idea-improvement-experiment-evaluation-rollout’.

Question the logic of today’s membership models

Most German parties suffer a severe loss of members. They thus started to gear up their efforts in order to win over new members. And they started implementing innovations like trial memberships and direct voting on questions of special relevance (like coalitions).

The fundamental logic of party membership has stayed untouched so far, though. This is a mistake. For most people who are willing to volunteer, it is a very smart and rational choice to not engage in parties. They realise that these organisations today do not value individual skills and potentials, do not allow you to realise pet projects on a long leash, and are better at blocking experiment and innovation than promoting it.

Open up spaces for self-efficacy and dialogue

People will consider (re-)engaging in party politics if they feel that their volunteering truly makes a difference. To make this possible, parties need to strategically rethink what party membership is there for – and how it needs to be designed to unfold the maximal societal impact.

Besides these long-term projects, there are plenty of low-hanging fruit party leaders could pluck if they only wanted. Why don’t parties introduce party apps that open up new, real-time ways of feeding members’ opinion into leadership discussion? This would give value to party membership, and open up exclusive pathways of influencing policy discussions for people who engage in party politics. Digital infrastructure creates the opportunity to establish feedback loops that make a new, organisation-wide conversation possible – so why not just use them?

Get to know party members and create tailored memberships

Also, parties need to get to know those who volunteer for them a lot better than today, in order to be able to deliver customised paths of volunteering. This is reality today for many NGOs – while parties are stuck in data wasteland (in Germany, not even email communication works properly). Parties need to invest heavily in order to catch up with today’s reality and expectations.

In our project, we proposed different kinds of memberships in order to meet different individuals’ wishes and needs better than the current catch-all offers. People who engage locally have different needs and profiles than those who are policy-driven experts who want to work region-, nation- or even Europe-wide on a political field. These different groups of party members need better pathways to self-efficacy – today they are mostly left alone to figure out where and how they can actually and truly participate in party life.

Photo credit: Cineberg / shutterstock