Political bosses do not master the art of managing and training people

Mike Jaspers (left) and veteran adviser Mike Munro (right) were part of a small team responsible for setting up the office of new Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (Photo for the press room by Lynn Grieveson)

Jennifer Lees-Marais
Auckland, September 29, 2022

Major parties are grappling with allegations of bullying and thuggish behavior. The political sphere lags far behind the corporate world when it comes to management and basic training of people.

Imagine having surgery for a brain tumour, only to find out at the last minute that your surgeon was untrained, and neither was his assistant. Would you still go under the knife? Of course you wouldn’t.

We expect professionals to be fully trained and qualified. Yet there is more training and regulation of masons and hairdressers than of our politicians and their staff.

We allow ourselves to be governed every day by politicians without verifying that they are qualified and trained to do the job. An unqualified surgeon is bad enough, but untrained politicians and their staff decide policies and budgets not just for an operation, but for every hospital and every area of ​​society.

HR issues in politics

When I was in Canberra interviewing senior political advisers for research on political management, I asked them which aspect needed the most research and the answer was unanimous: political HR. Human resource issues in politics are not limited to New Zealand, and certainly not to the Labor Party.

And while there are many books and courses on human resource management in business and the public sector, little is known about how to effectively apply HR principles in the unique political workplace. What we do know is that it doesn’t work the same way as other professions.

Standard HR selection processes do not exist in politics. Politicians and political staff are not recruited or appointed by assessing their skills against a job description. Party members select candidates and voters choose MPs for a myriad of reasons, including their appearance, and MPs often choose staffers based on their ideology or to reward their help on an election campaign.

Political bureaus are often formed at short notice. Former Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s chief of staff explained how they ‘landed in office without going through an election’ and ‘it was a unique and remarkable period of taking office overnight from 15 to about 50 odd “.

Ardern’s first chief of staff, Mike Munro, echoed that, conceding that finding advisers was “the hardest part of the job” because “it’s very difficult to find the right staff” for these roles.

Learn on the job

Once in office, politicians and their staff must learn on the job as there is little or no training, guidance or mentoring on how to “do politics” and work effectively together. There is also no transition; the former elected official is not going to sit down for a transfer of power with those who have just ousted him from power, especially if they are from another party.

Political advisers remember being “thrown into the deep end”. And the politicians who employ them also lack proper management training and experience. Deputies take office at short notice and are expected to be operational.

Yet there are no set qualifications or criteria for their role, nor is there a research-based training program on how the policy works.

Telling them official rules and processes, or even offering them leadership courses using research on business organizations, will not prepare them to do their job effectively.

And there is no sense of the profession, despite the importance of the profession.

As the one-party secretary explained: “There is no professional college…and there will never be a meeting at the Royal Society where myself and my counterparts from all the other parties get together and talk about what we’re all dealing with. with”, because in politics everyone is “naturally very secretive”.

Business experience helps

Business experience can help, but it’s not a substitute. Politics involves more complex stakeholders, expectations, pressures and goals because politicians, and even ministers, have far less direct power than CEOs.

Even those who have run political parties must move on to managing thousands of employees and multi-million budgets once in government. Most ministers have little experience running an office in a government setting.

Given the importance of government in society, the lack of human resources for those who run it raises significant concerns. If we want those who represent us to serve us, we must support and train them properly, just as we do for other professionals. But as the chief of staff to an Australian prime minister noted, “the political world is 20 or 30 years behind the business world.”

It is time to invest in a real professional training program for politicians and political staffers based on solid research on the reality of politics. We shouldn’t just shine the spotlight on individual parties when a problem arises, as that inevitably results in whatever created the problem being buried in the interest of limiting political fallout.

This is a problem that affects political parties globally, so we need to engage in a non-partisan debate on how to address it in the interest of better functioning democracies.

Jennifer Lees-Marshment is an associate professor specializing in political marketing and management at the University of Auckland. She is the author of ‘Political Management: The Dance of Government and Politics.’ The above article, which originally appeared on the Newsroom website, has been reproduced here under special permission.

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