Reframing political leadership beyond business acumen will help ensure all New Zealanders get what they need from government – not just get some people what they want, right now

Opinion: I have been reflecting on the National party’s change in leadership (again).

Not so much on whether the new leader is going to be better than the last few, but more about the language change that has come in with Christopher Luxon.

Both people in the party, and people in the media have been talking about Luxon, and the work he needs to do, in very particular and specific terms. Terms that have significant implications for people’s understanding of the work people in governments do.

First a fun task

I’m going to start with an exercise on how the narratives, words and images we use in the context of specific issues influence and shape what we see as normal, or a problem, in how the world or a part of it works or how our society is structured.

I’m going to write a word, and after you read this word I want you to list all the things that you associate with this word. Give yourself about 30 seconds – it’s basically a free association task. Okay, here is the word:


So, I cannot see your answers, but having done this many times before, many of you would have written or thought about things like: money, efficiency, growth, consumers, customers, stakeholders, success, profits, return on investment, corporate, finance, suits (and of course, a man).

Your words will vary based on your cultural and language background, and your experiences, but the answers will be very similar for many of us who have spent a lot of time in Western culture.

That is because the word (and in fact image) of a businessman and business is also a frame. 

Why words about people in government (or aspiring to run it) matter

A frame, in cognitive linguistics, is when a word or image in a culture brings with it a bunch of hard wired neurological associations, ideas, and understandings about the world that exposure to our culture over time has created.

Like a window frame out to a landscape focuses our gaze on one aspect of that landscape and not others, a cognitive frame focuses our attention on particular concepts and ideas while leaving out others. Words can frame what matters, who matters, and how things do and do not work, including core structures in our society.

What I have noticed is across a number of interviews, podcasts, analysis and speeches, Christopher Luxon is frequently almost exclusively spoken of in business terms.

As a chief executive, a businessman, a person who has run companies and businesses.

It is quite an exclusive narrative. It is interesting, because what it frames is a very particular idea about what the work of people in governments is (Christopher Luxon’s work anyway), and what it is not.

So, while you may have listed a lot of concepts that come with the business frame in the exercise above, there would have been many things that you didn’t associate with the word in your fast thinking subconscious processing.

Concepts like: citizens, deciding together, public structures, common good, us, shared resources, 100-year time frames, children, families, communities, well-being, health, equity, environment, (not to mention people who are not men).

These, you may notice, are all things that people in our governments are responsible for and work on, but they are not coming to mind.

In essence, if the work of people in governments (or some people in government) is frequently framed in our society as being about business and most effectively done by “business men”, we are not exposed to many core ideas and concepts about the work people in governments should and can do in the context of their purpose in our democracy.

It affects how people conceptualise the work of people in government and their willingness to engage in the important work of it. 

People tend to think in shallow ways about the work of our government

In research in the US, people’s thinking about government tends to be dominated by conceptualisations of themselves as consumers or customers of the government, which itself is seen as a provider of a product that they are purchasing.

With this comes ideas that the government is “them” over there providing to me what I want over here, rather than “us” as citizens deciding together what we need.

What is often missing when these mindsets are activated about government, researchers find, is thinking about the long term collective work that governments do for collective benefit down the line.

Such a “cognitive hole” makes it hard to build support for long term policy making that has benefits to all society, but which may not have direct “pay-offs’ for individual groups of people in it.

These mindsets are also seen in New Zealand. For instance, any time a person asks, “I pay my rates, but what am I getting for them?” or “I paid my tax so I could retire, now I get my superannuation in return”, they are drawing on thinking about themselves as customers of the government as a business, from which they should see a direct material payback for contributions made.

If they don’t, they can often resort to accusations of corrupt or incompetent people in government (which in some cases may be true, but is not based in this case on that reality).

People can and do think of the work of people in governments differently from this consumer/business mindset. We see that there is a mindset more in line with the work people in government actually do for the collective.

To bring these mindsets to the surface more often, it is useful for all of us talking about politics and government to move beyond the business and businessman frame.

Framing the work of our government in business terms alone is not an innovative way to think about government

Why is the business frame the one that people return to so easily and frequently? Possibly this has a lot to do with an intentional narrative that accompanied the 1980s reforms to government that are generally referred to as neoliberalism.

Certainly changes in how people conceptualised and carried out the work of government was needed at the time.

However, substituting the work of government directly for the work of business has proven very harmful to many groups in society – people running profit maximising businesses don’t consider, let alone know how to meet the health and well-being needs of all people in society across time. It’s just not their jam. And in New Zealand, Māori and Pacific people in particular bore the brunt of this way of thinking, as the Decades of Disparities work has proven.

Framing government as like a business is also unhelpful to building capability and capacity for the unique and skilled work people in governments can do with the right scaffolding. It holds us back from turning our local and central governments into collaborative and future-focused organisations that are able to work with all citizens to set the agenda and work for our future well-being.

There are certainly aspects of running a for profit business that are useful to bring to the work of leading our government. However, experiences in public policy making, the law, raising children, trying to survive on a benefit, running a not for profit organisation, doing research, finance, protecting the environment, growing a garden, or leading an iwi or hāpu are just as relevant, if not more in some cases.

These should be part of the frame applied to the leadership of governments. Especially modern leadership.

Christopher Luxon and the National Party have a lot of policy work ahead of them. The people who vote for National are people who care about the long term well-being of this country: child and family well-being, plenty of low cost homes where people need them, responding to a climate that humans have changed by planning and supporting new industries and jobs that are environment enhancing while transitioning us out of old ones. 

Nicola Willis has already shown her willingness to create housing policies for long-term collective wellbeing. Policies that require people who currently own houses and properties to see past individual returns on investment.

Support for these types of actions will need people to think more broadly about the role of our government and the type of work they need to do on our behalf.

Reframing the work our governments do as unique in our society will help. It will help ensure the people in there can get all of us what we need, not just some people what they want right now.

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