The political paradox

The skills required to win power rarely come with those needed to wield it effectively.

by Richard Reeves, director of Intelligence Agency, an ideas consultancy; e-mail: richard@intelligenceagency.co.uk
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It is an irony Marx would enjoy (Groucho, not Karl). While corporate AGMs are becoming noisier, more conflicted affairs, the annual seaside meetings of political parties have become models of televised calm. Shareholders are flexing their muscles, while delegates are no longer sure what it is they have been delegated to do. As Anthony Sampson, the anatomist of the UK, described last year's gathering of the Labour clan: 'The speeches and standing ovations were ... like staged television events, which the delegates were invited to overhear.'

While the political classes - especially Labour - have become ruthlessly effective at the persuasive arts, their ability to successfully marshal the bureaucracies of the public sector remains dimmed. The management of presentation and the management of people are entirely distinct; it is the tragedy of public life that the skills required to achieve power are rarely accompanied by those necessary to wield it effectively.

Tony Blair embodies this political paradox. A consummate persuader, he lacks the skills to manage large, complex organisations made up of people who work for him every day rather than vote for him every five years.

A succession of business advisers have testified to his managerial deficit.

In this he is not alone: indeed, the surprise should not be that politicians have difficulty in management, but that a handful seem to do passably well. The occupational background of politicians, the influence of the parliamentary system and the insecurity of political office conspire to ensure that the people we elect are mostly unable to compete with the senior civil service when it comes to running the country.

Politicians with any kind of pre-political career are disproportionately from professions in which individual effort and individual success are critical: the law, academia and - increasingly - journalism. They then enter a world in which the powers of persuasion are vital, either on TV or - decreasingly - in Parliament. These are in stark contrast to the consistent application, attention to detail and understanding of organisational dynamics needed to run even a medium-sized organisation, let alone a government. The UK's greatest constitutional weakness may be less the lack of formal separation between executive and the legislature than the recruitment for the former from the latter.

On top of this, political positions are profoundly insecure. This means that office-holders spend a huge amount of time holding on to them or manoeuvring for better ones: engaging, in short, in politics. Outside a handful of house-safe seats, MPs can be ejected at the whim of the electorate. And ministerial posts are even more vulnerable to the prime minister's whim.

The vagaries of political calculation mean that several departments have so many political masters or mistresses that the idea that any are able to lead coherently is laughable: the DTI, with the 'fastest revolving door in Whitehall', had 13 cabinet ministers in the 18 years before Patricia Hewitt picked up the chalice.

The very word 'reshuffle' underlines both the limitations and brutality of life at the top of politics. The PM has little choice in the cards he can play - a few hundred MPs, at best - but has to try continually to make the best of them. But there is a lack of humanity in the expression too: even cabinet members are just one of a deck.

Politics engenders a hard-heartedness that would make the toughest executive blanch. Dismissing a cabinet minister, Clement Attlee said: 'Good t'see you. I'm going through Government changes. Need your job for someone else.

Sake of the party, y'know. Send me the usual letter.' Asked by the political ally why, Attlee looked up from his papers and declared: "Cos you don't measure up to your job, that's why. Thanks for coming. Secretary will show you out.' And there can be no claims of unfair dismissal: politicians have no protection under the employment laws they enact for the rest of us.

Small wonder, then, that politicians struggle to manage change effectively.

Faced with institutions of the size, history and complexity of the health or employment service, they lack the experience, skills and tools to make things happen. And their tenure is likely to be so short that the incentive to initiate careful, thoroughgoing reform is limited.

These are some of the reasons why prime ministers often end up focusing on foreign affairs. Compared with the cast of characters in domestic policy, diplomats and soldiers are easy to deal with. Blair is not the first to feel the contrast between issuing an order at the top of the command-and-control mechanism of the military and trying to improve performance in the public services. Missile strike on Baghdad? No problem, boss - tomorrow?

Higher rates of cervical screening? We'll get back to you with 14 strategic options for setting up an inter-departmental committee in a couple of months.

But the greater danger is that frustrated ministers place responsibility for inaction on the shoulders of the public servants themselves: a classic example of a bad workman blaming his tools. Blair himself has fallen victim to this syndrome, citing the 'scars on his back' as evidence of his battles against the 'forces of conservatism in the public sector'. The truth is that the patient, unglamorous work of building the necessary conditions for change is simply neither his, nor most of his political peers', strongest suit - reshuffles notwithstanding.

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