If Jacinda Ardern wants to be re-elected, she will have to show more vision and bolder political management for the changed circumstances we now all face

As we run up to the 2020 election, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern appears to dancing high in terms of opinion polls and international accolades, but once the positive impact of effective crisis management dissipates, attention will turn to the more mundane steps of political management as she asks us to vote her back into government.

Political management – the art of getting things done – is much more of a dance than a march. Popularity by itself is not enough to control the myriad of practitioners, players, processes and policies involved in 21st century governance. To be successful political managers, political leaders need to show a vision, create a plan, and implement it, adapting as needed to unpredictable events, obstacles, different parties and politicians.

The following is my score of Ardern’s performance using my ‘4Ds’ model of political management – deliberating, designing, doing and dancing. Deliberating requires reviewing and reflecting; designing involves planning, thinking and strategising; discharging is about implementing those plans and managing people effectively; whilst dancing involves being artful and adaptive to get it all done successfully. This assessment shows the flaws in Ardern’s political management as well as her effectiveness:

Deliberating – score: less well

· Ardern didn’t really have time to deliberate due to becoming party leader close to the election, and Prime Minister unexpectedly.

· In government she identified the need for improvement and development in terms of articulating the problems in 2017, and noted the need to focus on delivery in 2019.

· However, she still hasn’t defined what her vision for New Zealand is, and of course Covid-19 has disrupted everything.

Designing – score: less well

· Having to lead a diverse, hastily-assembled coalition means that overall, the organisational goals of the whole government and her leadership are unclear.

· Lower down, immediate policy goals were laid out more clearly – Labour had a 100-day plan and delivered on it.

· However, the Government’s organisational strategy was slow in coming and it took a year for the coalition Government to produce an organisational plan.

· We have yet to see whether the Labour Party will design a clearer set of goals and strategic plan for if they are re-elected in 2020.

Discharging – score: less well

· Ardern has lacked authority because she’s managing a complex coalition government.

· Given the compromises needed, it has been hard for Ardern to implement her party’s plans and deliver on policy promises.

· This has stopped her being transformational, and her government has failed to deliver on housing with KiwiBuild not living up to promises, and having to abandon a long-held Labour capital gains tax.

· In the 2020 election the question will be can she convince the public she is the leader who can get much more done given a second term.

Dancing – score: very well

· This is where Ardern excels. She has been excellent at collaborating, managed a complex coalition government as well as crisis.

· She has been adaptable, and found ways to assume power even though she is dependent on other parties to retain control of government.

· She has been persuasive and created power by building on her public reputation of being relatable before the election and has added competence while Prime Minister in government. This has created a very strong relationship with the public and strengthened her brand.

· Ardern also encourages excellence in the country as a whole, talking about kindness being a leadership strength, and the team of five million getting through the Covid-19 health crisis.

What this means going into an election is that, although Ardern may be an effective dancer when it comes to managing challenging coalitions and crises, she is less well-perceived when it comes to having a plan and getting things done. The popularity of such leaders soars during a crisis because their ability to dance and adapt is perfect for the unpredictability that crisis presents. But when the crisis subsides, or we move into the recovery period, such leaders become more vulnerable as attention moves onto who can design and discharge the best plans and policies to get us out of the bad situation.

Ardern is of course in a very strong position as leader – she has retained her relatability in government while adding competence due to managing multiple crises in power. But the economic challenges of Covid-19 will be added to a perception of a lack of delivery on 2017 issues such as housing, which Labour campaigned on. Delivering policy progress always takes time. But this is why leaders normally lay out an overall vision that we can hold on to and get behind as we wait for new policies to be designed and delivered.

The fact is that we’ve never heard what Ardern’s vision is for New Zealand given she took over just before the campaign started in 2017, then went straight into running the country. Key wanted to make us more ambitious and get the economy going and stop Kiwis wanting to leave. Where does Ardern want to take New Zealand?

Between now and the election she needs to identify and articulate what her vision is, a vision that takes account of the likely scenario that there are tough times ahead. Her party needs a plan with staged initiatives to show progress from the very difficult situation in 2020 through to starting the rebuild in 2021 and then success over the long-term.

In other words, Ardern is brilliant at the dancing part of political management, but needs to get onto deliberating and designing ASAP, then convince us she is the best leader to discharge her new ideas and plans. If she doesn’t, she risks leaving herself and Labour open to attacks from National that they, as the party of business, and their new leader Todd Muller are the best to take us out of crisis and into recovery.

National can engage in a slow, safe and secure dance and win over voters unsure what Labour really stands for. It’s time for Ardern to start designing her own dance for New Zealand, and showcase a much more visionary and bold form of political management for the changed circumstances we now all face.

Dr Lees-Marshment is an expert in political marketing and political management. Her latest book Political Management: The Dance of Government and Politics, published by Routledge, will be available from July 2020.

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