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Ditchley celebrates 50 years of transatlantic and global dialogue

Published: Thursday, 26th July 2012

Fifty years after the first-ever conference, the current Chairman of the Council of Management, Lord Robertson, and the Director, Sir John Holmes, hosted an anniversary dinner and discussion for current governors and other members of The Ditchley Foundation family on 8-9 June 2012. After dinner Lord Robertson spoke about Ditchley’s current status and plans, while the Director toasted past and future successes for Ditchley’s influence in better decision-making in the world.

Both emphasised that the vision of the founder, Sir David Wills, remained very much alive, even if the conference programmes and participant nationalities had changed significantly. Long gone were sherry breaks and trips to Stratford to see Shakespeare. Participants nowadays worked hard in plenary and working group sessions. But conversations over meals, and breaks to give those attending a chance to reflect and meet different people, remained an important part of the Ditchley experience.
A discussion the following morning on Ditchley: the next fifty years gave governors the chance to say where they thought the Foundation should be going in the future. The Director suggested that if Ditchley wanted another five decades of success it could not stand still, and had to move with the times. Its strengths included the wonderful location and premises;  unique conferences which had the flexibility to address timely topics; the prestigious Ditchley brand which had great convening power; independence from governments; discretion, based on the Chatham House Rule; and solid support from the Foundation’s sister organisations in the US and Canada.

But Ditchley also had issues to address. The lack of direct links with government could hinder the attendance of top policymakers, as could the lack of connectivity. Busy people were increasingly reluctant to spend two days away from the office. Competition from other conference venues had increased. Ditchley was less visible to the new elites, especially those from the BRIICTS countries whose attendance was essential. The lack of specific focus could also be a negative.

The Director outlined opportunities for the future: Ditchley was one of the few places where busy policy influencers could retreat from their daily pressures, and indulge in some creative thinking – something needed more than ever in today’s hectic world. We had a chance to expand our links in places like China and India, which could also open up new fundraising avenues. Ditchley could also do more to raise its profile through the use of social media and an improved website, as well as press coverage and one day events like last year’s Parliamentary discussion.

Suggestions/comments from the floor included the following:

• Ditchley should spread its wings beyond its transatlantic and diplomatic connections. It needed to attract more serious business people to conferences. Having a Director and/or Chairman of the Council from the business and financial worlds from time to time could help. 

• The Programme Committee and Council should identify key themes, like sustainable prosperity, or the role of democracy in the world, and create mini-series of conferences on these themes.

• The Foundation should further strengthen links with China and India (as well as all BRIICTS countries).

• Conferences lasting two days were essential to give participants time to think outside the box. However some Governors thought the relatively new Thursday-Saturday format could revert to Friday-Sunday occasionally, to suit business participants.

• Many of those working in finance and business did not know Ditchley existed. If they did know of its existence they would come, and relish the opportunity to gain access to people working in, and familiar with, government.

• The Foundation should be wary about aiming to increase public impact. Ditchley’s basic purpose was one of public service, looking at how to interpret global change and how the UK could fit into this. Ditchley could host a series of conferences on that theme, including the changing UK-USA relationship in the 21st century.

• Ditchley should cultivate those in ‘governments in waiting’ in the UK, ahead of elections. Once those concerned got into power they would not have time to network with new people. Business people could be more easily lured to conferences if they knew potential ministers would be present.

• The Foundation needed to link conferences and fundraising together, especially in countries like China and India where they could work with local think tanks. If you wanted good delegates from countries like these it was necessary to offer business class fares.

• It was important to hold one day or half day conferences on ‘hot’ topics which could make Ditchley more relevant, and give busy people a chance to attend. Fixing subjects 18 months in advance had its problems on the topicality front.

• More vibrant 20-30 year olds, the new ‘global shapers’, should be invited to conferences to offer innovative and original ideas, especially rich/powerful/young entrepreneurs from BRIICTS countries.

• It was difficult, and expensive, to get top-class participants from overseas to conferences because two days became four with travel. Important people should be allowed to participate by video or telephone in parts of conferences.

• Too few non-establishment people attended. Governors should send their recommendations for such people because this was a good way to recruit.

• Many Governors did not know what was expected of them, apart from helping gain Ditchley a higher profile, and would like more guidance.

• A high profile day/half day event could be organised in London for prominent business leaders. Those involved with Ditchley could bring someone to the event to introduce them to the Foundation.

• More connectivity could be needed; at present wifi was only available in the ‘business centre’ and many people could not afford to be out of touch for long stretches of time, or at least believed they could not afford to be.

• More women needed to be enticed into Ditchley as participants, chairs of conferences and on the Council and its committees.
• Many elites of tomorrow were at university in the UK today, especially BRIICTS future leaders, so it was crucial to get them on board whilst in the UK. Mixing the new emerging powers with established nations allowed a balance of ideas to improve policy solutions. We needed to attract new and younger talent without discouraging those we already knew from attending.
• We should be looking backwards, as well as forwards. Reading the past papers in the ‘souvenir brochure’ proved how many of the same problems still existed.
• Past Director’s Notes could be collated and made into a book. Regular op-eds in a respected newspaper like the FT could be placed on a monthly basis.

The Director welcomed all these ideas, while noting that some, such as increasing the number of young, business, and BRIICTS participants, were things that Ditchley were already trying to do. The team would look carefully at all the suggestions. George Robertson reminded all concerned that the Ditchley team was very small, and needed help from the Governors if it were going to do many of the things suggested.

Sarah Puntan-Galea, Deputy Director: 05.07.12