The major parties are grappling with allegations of bullying and rogue behaviour. Jennifer Lees-Marshment writes that the political sphere lags far behind the corporate world on basic people management and training
Opinion: Imagine you are scheduled to be operated on for a brain tumour, but you find out at the last minute your surgeon has not been trained, and neither has their 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 builders and hairdressers than there is of our politicians and their staff.
We let ourselves be ruled every day by politicians without checking they are qualified and trained to do the job. An unqualified surgeon is bad enough, but untrained politicians and their staff decide on the policies and budgets for not just one operation, but every hospital, and every area of society.
When I was in Canberra interviewing senior political advisers for research on political management, I asked them what aspect most needed researching and the answer was unanimous: political HR. Human resources problems in politics are not confined to New Zealand, and certainly not the Labour Party.
And while there are plenty of books and courses on human resource management in business and the public sector, little is known about how to apply HR principles effectively 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 don’t 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 what they look like; and MPs often choose staffers on their ideology or to reward their help on an election campaign.
Political offices are often put together at short notice. Former Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s chief of staff explained how they “landed in the job without actually going through an election” and “it was quite a unique and remarkable period of taking an office overnight from 15 to about 50 odd”.
Ardern’s first chief of staff Mike Munro echoed this, conceding that finding advisers was “the most challenging part of the job” as “it is very hard to find the right fit of personnel” for these roles.
Once in position, politicians and their staff are left to learn on the job as there is little or no training, advice or mentoring in how to ‘do politics’ and work effectively together. There’s also no transition; the previous office holder is not going to sit down for a handover with those who have just booted them out of power, especially if they are from another party.
Political advisers recall being “thrown in the absolute deep end”. And the politicians who employ them also lack training and appropriate management experience. MPs start their role at short notice and are expected to hit the ground running. Yet there are no defined qualifications or criteria for their role and nor is there any training programme built on research into how politics works.
Telling them the official rules and processes, or even offering short courses in leadership using research into commercial organisations, is not going to prepare them to do their job effectively. And there’s no sense of a profession, despite the importance of the job. As one-party secretary explained: “There isn’t any professional college… and there is not ever going to be some meeting at the Royal Society where myself and my counterparts from all the other parties come together and talk about what we are all dealing with,” because in politics everyone is “naturally very secretive”.
Business experience might help but it’s not a substitute. Politics involves more complex stakeholders, expectations, pressures, and goals because politicians, and even ministers, have much less direct power than CEOs.
Even those who have led political parties have to upscale to managing thousands of staff 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 HR for those running it raises significant concern. If we want those that represent us to serve us, we need to support and train them properly, just as we do other professionals. But as an Australian Prime Minister’s chief of staff noted, “The political world is 20 or 30 years behind the corporate world.”
It’s time to invest in a proper professional training programme for politicians and political staffers built on solid research into the reality of politics. We shouldn’t just be putting the spotlight on individual parties when an issue comes up, as that inevitably ends up with whatever created the issue being buried in the interests of limiting the political fallout.
This is a problem that affects political parties globally, so we need to engage in non-partisan debate about how to fix it for the sake of better functioning democracies.