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Christina Dykes: Just like any other profession, politicians need skills training

DYKES CHRISTINA 1 Christina Dykes has been Special adviser to Dominic Grieve QC MP on community cohesion since 2003.  She is also Lead Conservative Special Adviser of the Leadership Centre for Local Government and Political Consultant to the Local Government Association.

In a window of City University’s Social Science building hangs a poster displaying a quote of Albert Einstein:

“Politics is more difficult than physics”.

Generally people do not think of politics as being difficult – instead they think of words such as scurrilous... dirty... gravy train... snouts in the trough... or similar imagery.   With the sort of reputation politics and politicians have gained 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 then those who have the potential will not apply, preferring instead to keep their reputation in tact.

A small but flashy minority of elected politicians have done their best to besmirch the name of politics, while the vast majority are serving their electorate diligently.  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 realisation that politicians are not serving us well.  With daily airings in the press of backbench MPs’ laxity and ministerial incompetence 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, paid more and accorded the respect they think, with some justification, they deserve, then there is more than good behaviour at stake.  Politicians are one of the few professions 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 great for them but even worse for us who have to live with the consequences of their bad decision making.

The process of a political failure has proved to be very damaging to the population at large.  Having no training or professional standards to fall back on, politicians resort to the only skills they have been able to develop as they battled to be parliamentary candidates.  They include posturing, tribalism, and exaggerated promising. When they need it the most as senior politicians the finer skills - such as leadership development, how to tackle insoluble problems, personal organisation, people management, and complimentary team work - are simply missing from their vocabulary and knowledge spectrum.

Put it another way. Any one except the seriously mad or bad – or those who already have a legislative role in the House of Lords  - are allowed to stand for Parliament.  Once an election is won the aspiring politician could find him or her self in an executive position sometimes overseeing billion pound budgets, or even with the responsibility of a large department or directorate.   It is the equivalent of an organisation such as Boots going onto the street, enticing 10 to 12 men or women into the Boardroom with promises of status and power then letting them run the company for in 4-5 years with no training or preparation.

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 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.   However 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 is a unique concept and differs from business leadership in a number of ways. 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 success in a 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 power balance.  In organisations people are appointed to positions: in politics the power base is in being elected which means MPs continually have to balance the needs of their constituents against their allegiance to the party’s national policies. 

Successful businesses have in built support systems; hitherto politics does not.  The emphasis in politics in on “self“ rather than “corporate” survival.

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 which they are accountable.

What is needed is more research into what constitutes good political leadership.  The starting point is for politicians themselves to understand the need for this and be ready to participate and cooperate.  Once we've established the unique set of skills and competence that helps a politician understand better his/her 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 truly a difficult one.


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