Friday, 22 August 2008

Power to Persuade and Cohere

Back in the days of my first degree I did a course in American politics, and in fact I followed that part up for an abandoned course on American Government at the University of Essex for a few months from the end of 1981 (it is not on my CV!). I had a succession of accommodation problems. Only after this did I draw on the Sociology within the first degree and ended up doing a Sociology of religion Ph.D, and later on in the nineties became a qualified pop group with an MA in contemporary Theology.

One question we studied in the BA and aborted MA was how American presidents gained their power. The answer was - skilfully, via the power to persuade. They can initiate and they can veto (overturned by two thirds majorities in both Houses of Congress). Another way they gain power is by organising the Executive branch, to have their cabinet ministers and advisors in some competition with each other regarding advice. The President coheres and the President has the buck stopping with him.

Now a powerful Prime Minister in Britain, despite having a small majority, was Harold Wilson. One of his master strokes was to keep George Brown busy with the new Institute of Economic Affairs. The idea was to match it against the Treasury. Anyone who knows their political history knows that the Treasury throttled the IEA and George Brown ended up drunk in doorways. Ministers constantly argued, and Harold Wilson took the decisions. He had a 'kitchen cabinet' but he did let the real one function. When Harold Wilson suddenly resigned, he did it because he had the first clue of loss of his considerable intellectual powers, and there was a history of Altzheimer's Disease in the family. Indeed he did get the disease and ended up nursed in the Scilly Isles. He had also become paranoid about the secret service listening in on him.

I mention this in a largely (not completely) religious based blog because I'm thinking of designing a conference where I can end up taking the decisions. How would I do it?

One of the things to do is to keep people occupied, and the best way to do that is through lots of workshops or the equivalent. Whilst the conference can go on a long time, I want the actual subjects to consider to be short of time so that there is a sense that they are unfinished (I can then finish them myself). Now, I don't want them to take the decisions, just in case the majorities run against me on anything, or there is some sort of insistence I don't want. So this would mean separating out the reporting system of what was said in the groups from the groups themselves. I'll have some scribes to work for me.

(It's like when Margaret Thatcher read out the minutes. They were always agreeable to her interpretation of a discussion. She actually had two advantages - she did most of the speaking too.)

Now I don't want other scribes in there, so the conference will have to be private. I want reporters and people to feel involved, but not actually to be involved, so this will be a high fence conference and other people kept on the fringe. Those who are really involved can even be entirely isolated from the outsiders and reporters as they wish: if the involved leak to these outside scribes it will be obvious who the involved are. There are always those who want to enhance their own position by leaking, giving interviews and generally making relationships with unreliable scribes. Remember that at the conference these reporters won't be opening their mail until they get back.

So what sort of process and outcome do I want? I want heads down and studying, and small discussions, and arrange the groups to consist of opposite types so that they all clash and have to listen to each other. The scribes then write down the conflicting messages on big sheets of paper and they will have leeway what to emphasise: there can be a feedback on this so the conference goers think they own the process - but they don't.

We need some big plenary sessions of course, so I will invite some of my mates to come down and give speeches that will nudge along my argument. However, I shall make my own speeches and have my own press briefings because I want to make sure the agenda runs my way. I know what I want.

My first speech will be to set the scene. My second one will sow a bit of confusion by an even-handedness that will reflect the divisions in the small groups and the incomplete subjects discussed. So that will lay the whole thing open for my last speech. I need to make sure that I will carry people with my last speech, which, if it coheres will be a tremendous relief to them, so what I will also do is have a few working groups starting up before and outside the actual workings of the conference carrying out my agenda. So they will make some initial recommendations into the conference that will whet the appetites of the attenders. Then I will draw on these working parties for my big finale in which I will make announcements of having more working groups.

That should do it. They will be drinking out of my hands.

Now I need a venue. I wonder if the University of Kent has a spare two or three weeks?


JayV said...

LOL, all I can say is that is priceless! Thanks!

Erika Baker said...

But what will you have achieved when all the dust has settled?

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Everyone goes home thinking how masterly I was. I've set up some more institutions. However, I shall give a shock announcement of my retirement and go and do my books.

Erika Baker said...

I'm waiting with bated breath...

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Then like Frank Sinatra I'd make a come back, but only to annoy my successor.

Erika Baker said...

Or Margaret Thatcher's sheep in wolf's clothing?
Doesn't do much for your long term reputation, though.