Professional development will help them to help us


Posted on ConservativeHome, Thursday 16 July 2009

It was Albert Einstein who said “Politics is more difficult than physics”.

Generally people do not think of politics as being difficult – instead words such as scurrilous, dirty, gravy train, snouts in the trough or similar images spring to mind. With the sort of reputation politics and politicians have gained (in a recent Ipsos Mori poll politicians in general were shown to be the type of people that others least trusted) it is small wonder that we have the politicians that we do. If it is not recognised that politics is a serious job, needing considerable skills to execute properly, then those who have potential will not apply, preferring instead to keep their reputation in-tact.

The recent reports of the lenient way MPs of all parties have interpreted the rules on allowances has done nothing to enhance the reputation of politicians. There will never be a system that will stop those who fail to understand their responsibilities, not only written ones but also those implicit to their position. Greed, laziness, corruption and disreputable behaviour are the enemy of more than politicians. But perhaps of greater worry is the growing perception that politicians are not serving us well. With daily airings in the press of backbench MPs’ laxity and ministerial incompetency (ministers, by the way, are third from the bottom of those seen to be trustworthy in Ipsos Mori poll; separated from politicians in general by journalists) that suspicion is being inflamed by fact.

Good behaviour is a significant means of restoring the reputation of politicians but it is not the only way. If politicians want to be taken seriously, accorded the respect they should merit then there is more than good behaviour at stake. Looking again at Ipsos Mori poll of the 16 categories of jobs listed, politicians are one of the few that do not have any recognised continuous professional development. In fact there is no recognised preparation for being a politician. Nor is there any agreement on how to recognise whether any given individual is suited to the task. Sadly the “suck it and see” attitude is the only one on offer. Whether an individual sinks or swims is the test of whether he or she will be able to climb the slippery pole. This is not good for them but even worse for us who have to live with the consequences of their bad decision making.

Having little training to fall back on, politicians resort to the skills they developed as they battled to be elected, such as posturing, tribalism, and exaggerated promising. When they need it the most as senior politicians the finer skills such as leadership development, how to tackle strategic problems, personal organisation, people management, and complimentary team work are, for most, missing from their vocabulary and knowledge spectrum. More is the pity. Those appointed to government quickly find their civil servants are armed to the teeth with such skills, putting the politician at a severe disadvantage.Moreover what management skills MPs do exhibit tend to be learnt from the career structure of a job previously or still held. If Gordon Brown succeeds in cracking down on MPs having second jobs then there will be even less opportunity for MPs to learn the sort of skills they need to in government.

Before respondents reach for their pens (or keyboard) to tell me that there is no place for professional politicians let me say straight away I am as against the concept of standardisation in politics as anyone.Politics lends itself to personalities more than most other professions and it is the variety of personalities in politics that allows for difference and gives it its colour. Professional development is not about standardisation, or else the approach would have already run into the ground some time ago. What professional development stands for is increasing an individual’s capacity and competence. It is about stretching potential and opening up an individual’s ability to deliver. It is about increasing awareness and a person’s comprehension of their role and how best they, as an individual, can improve his/her performance.

Nor am I suggesting that MPs are given standard manuals on business management to complete their skill training. Political leadership in a unique concept and differs from business leadership. Organisations, especially commercial ones, tend to have stated and measurable outcomes. In politics measurements of success are not obvious; targets and outcomes are often skewed by “events” and there is little agreement as to what constitutes a successful political career.

Organisations tend to have strict hierarchies: in politics the management structure is confused and there are wide ranging client groups to whom politicians are answerable. In organisations promotion is achieved by objective criteria and it is transparent. In politics advancement depends on more subjective values such as patronage, the need for diversity and the need to balance different interests and groupings. In organisations people are appointed to positions: in politics their position depends on being elected and then re-elected. MPs therefore have to continually balance the needs of their constituents against allegiance to the Party’s national policies.

Successful businesses have formalised internal support systems; currently politics does not. The emphasis in politics tends to be on the survival of their political Party rather than that of the individual.

There are also problems of culture. Introducing what may be seen as professional organisational techniques to a political environment might be seen to challenge MPs’ independence and so risk the democratic standing on which politicians rely. So attempts to introduce notions of political competence and skills will have to be reconciled to the flexibility and informality needed by politicians to satisfy the pluralistic and potentially conflicting views of those to whom they are accountable.

More research into what constitutes good political leadership is needed. The starting point is for politicians themselves to understand the need for this and be ready to participate and cooperate. Once the unique set of skills and competencies that helps a politician better understand their role then the better will be the ability to tailor useful and properly constructed professional development programmes for them. They owe it to us and we owe it to them to recognise that their role is a truly difficult one.