By Debbie Soloman
Two years ago, as a brand new Association member I dived right in and offered to set up and run a Conservative Policy Forum (CPF) group. The Chairman gave the go ahead and I went about setting up a group, getting members to come along and engage in the consultations, writing and submitting reports.
It took just over a year from launch to get the group from new to the Number 1 group in the CPF league table. Since hitting that high spot Rushcliffe’s CPF has stayed there ever since. CPF group success is scored on number of consultations submitted, number of people attending and the quality of each report submitted.
So what is the secret to the success of Rushcliffe’s CPF? I believe our success revolves around the four Ps: People, Place, Policy and Participation.
Before I got going, I realised that as a totally new member I knew no one and had never even been to a CPF meeting. So I did my research. I then contacted Pamela Goodman at Kettering about their CPF and went along for a meeting. They were very welcoming and helpful. I saw how the Chairman ran the consultation and I was kindly given a copy of one of their reports so I could see the style of the information submitted.
Once I knew what was expected and seen how a consultation meeting could be run it was time to get the new Rushcliffe group off the ground. The principle ingredient was getting People to come. As I did not know the members in my Association or have access to VoteSource (I didn’t even know what VS was at that time), how was I going to entice people? Who would be interested?
I set up a free MailChimp Account and an online registration form for people to complete if they were interested in attending. The Chairman then kindly sent out an email for me to all members with the link to the registration form. Some people signed up so I was up and running.
Next, I needed a Place to hold the first meeting. The easiest seemed the Conservative Club in West Bridgford, so I asked and was given access to a small back room. Again, the Chairman sent out an email for me with the date, time and location of the meeting. I emailed the signups directly.
The next issue to deal with was Policy. My first consultation was on Housing and Planning which was a huge topic! I downloaded all the information from the CPF website, read it all and undertook further research so I was prepared. The first meeting I chaired was a success and 7 people attended but most importantly they all seemed to enjoy it. The Chairman came to the meeting too and I was grateful for his support, but I also suspect he wanted to keep an eye on me as I suppose I was still an unknown quantity! Everyone who came to the meeting signed a form agreeing to use of their details - and of course complying with GDPR, so I could add them to my growing database.
I then wrote and submitted the report. To ensure that all the People who came to the consultation meeting and participated felt that attending had been worthwhile, I circulated the report to everyone on my database. That way they could read that I had included all the relevant comments and ideas in the report.
I hoped they would feel they had been listened to and their views directly fed back to the Party; which of course is the core aim of the CPF.
For the second consultation I decided a different venue, more geographically central in Rushcliffe to make it easier for people to get to was needed. I did quite a bit of research to find an appropriate pub which served good food, had a separate meeting room we could use and was free. I found one suitable and then arranged the date for the next consultation. Again I emailed everyone on my database directly and the Chairman sent out my email wider to the membership.
I drew on my marketing skills in my communications to encourage people to come before the meeting to enjoy the carvery on offer at the pub before the meeting. It worked and ten turned up, with most arriving to eat beforehand.
I have always begun each meeting by giving a presentation on the topic, based on the consultation information provided plus the research that I’ve undertaken to set the scene. Good Chairing skills are important so I’ve invested in training to ensure mine are the best they can be and my priority is to ensure everyone has a voice and contributes to the discussions.
Again I added to my database, sent "thank you"s for attending and provided a link to the submitted report so they could see the fruits of their participation.
A couple of consultations later, at our Association AGM, I was elected Deputy Chairman Membership. As I could now get access to VoteSource (and knew what it was) it made informing members about the CPF consultations and outcomes much easier.
In fact, I immediately set up a newsletter to all our members, which I still send each month and in my new role as Association Chairman. The newsletter has been a key tool for engagement with our members, ideal to keep them informed, for fundraising and campaigning events. For publicising Rushcliffe’s CPF, it made it much easier. In each issue I publicise the date of the next meeting, with images and links to the consultation documents, pictures of our last meeting, link to submitted report and outline the venue and food on offer. I also report our position as a group in the CPF league table and when Rushcliffe is in the top noteworthy comments.
Attendance for consultations continued to grow and we needed a bigger room. Identifying a venue that ticked all the boxes was tricky. The priority was a private room for our meeting and good food available for a social gathering beforehand. At this point a central geographical location was not a priority as there were regular attendees and as they enjoyed participating, airing their views and the socialising, I considered they were willing to travel. Fortunately I found a new venue that fitted the bill and persuaded the pub manager to let us use the room for free as my attendees would eat there before our meeting.
The next job was again to positively market the pub as a venue and the fantastic food on offer to ensure that the people who come to the consultations do indeed eat beforehand - so the manager lets us have it for free again next time.
At each consultation there were more and more people attending, turning it into quite an event. But it began to be difficult to manage such a large group in a flowing discussion. I considered that I may need to change the way the discussion was run. As it was coming up to Christmas I decided to run a CPF Christmas event as a fundraiser - but also to have a fun time as a thank you for everyone who had attended over the past year. Our new venue was perfect as they catered for events.
I’d also set up digital ticketing and payments for the Association which mean that with the newsletter and online payments it was easy for people to book and pay for their tickets. In addition to a hot buffet, I publicised a policy consultation hour on the latest topic, a speaker, quiz, raffle and of course the requirement to wear Christmas jumpers. Over 30 people booked to attend; far too many to manage in one discussion group, so it would also be an opportunity to try running the discussion a bit differently.
As with most events there are last minute hitches. My speaker was Brendan Clarke-Smith MP and he was unable to attend in person due to a last minute rail strike. Fortunately, with my business I have the equipment needed to project a Zoom connection to the room. Brendan joined us by Zoom and the event went well; everyone had a great time and enjoyed being plied with sweets, candy canes, mince pies, Christmas cake and crackers. Over £400 was raised for the Association.
My solution for the consultation component was that after my introductory presentation on the topic each table of six had their own discussion around the questions being asked. One person in each group would lead and write notes in the consultation pack that I had prepared for each table. I also dipped in and out of the discussion held on each table.
Afterwards I wrote up the report with reference to the notes I had taken, what I remembered from dipping into the grouped table discussions and what had been written in each group’s consultation pack. Writing up the report to ensure the majority of views and suggestions were incorporated - and yet still keeping it reasonably concise - was a bit more tricky, but it worked.
The outcome of that consultation was that after the first year, Rushcliffe’s CPF became No 1 in the CPF league table. Feeding back that success and highlighting my appreciation for their participation was a key part of marketing the consultations to our members over the next year. With good attendance (and being flexible to run as a single group or as multiple group discussions) and submitted reports always in the top five for noteworthy comments, has ensured we retained our No 1 spot.
Of the four Ps (People, Place, Policy and Participation) I believe that ensuring people feel their Participation is valued and worthwhile is the most important.
As I have launched and run Rushcliffe CPF group for two years, it’s now time to step away and hand that opportunity on to someone else. I ran my last consultation just before Christmas. Again as a fundraiser with hot food (I cooked this time), consultation, quiz and speaker CPF Manager John Hayward by Zoom. It went well and was enjoyed by everyone. As someone else steps into my shoes they will have their own ideas and style of running things. I will continue to market our consultations to members in our newsletter and support Rushcliffe’s new CPF leader in my role as Chairman.
For me the most important part of the CPF is that our members feel listened to, learn something about policy from the discussion and, most importantly, enjoy the event and know that their participation is valued. After all, the Policy Forum and the feedback it provides from our members to the Conservative Party is an excellent barometer of whether our members consider we are going in the right direction. If the voice of our membership is listened to, then members will support us and, most importantly, vote for a Conservative Government. That is why the work of everyone in the CPF is so valuable and I am proud to have been part of that contribution.