The author has been described by News Ltd as an "iconoclast", "Svengali", a pollie's "economist muse", and "pungently accurate". Fairfax says he is a "Renaissance man" and "one of Australia’s most respected analysts." Stephen Koukoulas concludes that he is "85% right", and "would make a great Opposition leader." Terry McCrann claims the author thinks "‘nuance’ is a trendy village in the south of France", but can be "scintillating" when he thinks "clearly". The ACTU reckons he’s "an enigma wrapped in a Bloomberg terminal, wrapped in some apparently well-honed abs."

Monday, May 24, 2010

Updated: How do we fix the 'professional pollie' problem?

The SMH’s ordinarily sympathetic, sometimes left-of-centre Ross Gittins takes the Boss (as PMs are known to their advisors), and his consigliere more particularly, to task with unprecedented aggression. A must read here if you want to get a feel for a commentariat in revolt (HT Peter Martin).

I am halfway through “Game Change”, which is a brilliant analysis of the US election. One surprising revelation is the sheer ineptitude--and there really is no other word for it--of most politicians when it comes to managing their people and policy programs. Indeed, many notionally successful pollies seem to be case-studies in management dysfunction.

You would think that such skills would be core competencies, but they're not. And one does not have to search hard to find similar examples back home. Consider the oft-referenced turnover in many senior political offices, or, as another example, the ultra high-level former minister who, in striking contrast to his hard-working public profile, was one of the laziest ministers the bureaucracy had ever seen. While holding putative responsibility for our collective welfare, this individual would refuse to read his department’s briefing notes and reportedly spent much of his day rehearsing lines in preparation for parliament.

Based on Game Change’s disclosures, even exceptionally experienced operators like Hillary Clinton do not appear to possess anything remotely like the expertise required to serve as a successful real-world manager. Clinton had a pathological aversion to addressing personal conflicts, which is a condition precedent for functional leadership. These shortcomings led to constant crises in her campaign, which, ironically given Hillary's criticism of it, bore a striking resemblance to the day-to-day operations of her husband's White House.

The management malady is an especially worrying thought when you consider that these folks ultimately have to run multi-trillion dollar economies.

Perhaps we should require 'professional politicians'—eg, those that have spent less than, say, five years ‘working’ in the real world—to complete an MBA or something similar. It almost seems like the worst possible training you could get prior to actually managing a country is a life spent in politics. This may be why genuinely effective political leaders are so few and far between. It's like trying to serve as a senior specialist in a hospital after having had five years running your student representative council.

Unfortunately, pollies compound these deficiencies by surrounding themselves with even less experienced advisors. It should be no surprise then that they struggle to 'execute' in a manner that is taken for granted in other walks of life.

This is an important lesson for talented new turks, like Labor's Dr Andrew Leigh. I learnt the hard way that academia, the RBA and even Goldman Sachs were poor training grounds for building a business from scratch. The real world is darker and more complex.