Robert Louis Stevenson once observed that “politics is the only occupation for which no preparation is thought to be necessary.” He was wrong. Even in previous centuries when the scope and complexity of government was far less challenging, “amateur” politicians and their parties still found it difficult to diagnose social problems, gain public support for their policy ideas, set agendas within government, and translate their ideas into effective programs.
The emphasis within political parties has been on campaigning and communication to build support, not on the tough tasks of developing sound policy ideas and building skills to lead public organizations. Despite generous public subsidies, political parties have invested little time and effort into policy development. Campaign schools for candidates and short orientations programs for newly-elected legislators do not prepare them for the real challenges of public life. The mindless partisanship and the lack of meaningful opportunities to gain in-depth knowledge and, even more importantly to apply that knowledge in a constructive manner, means that the talents of most elected representatives are not developed or fully utilized.
To obtain sound policy advice and the managerial skills to implement programs effectively, we have public service schools, executive development programs and exchanges with the private sector. Few similar opportunities exist for politicians.
The concept of a school of government for politicians raises questions. The most basic is: can politics be taught? I believe that it can.
The National School of Government in the U.K. and the Graduate School of Political Management in Washington, have produced graduates who practice politics effectively and with greater ethical awareness because of the opportunity to broaden their perspectives and to gain new skills. These schools are not training spin doctors, pollsters and media manipulators; their goal is to provide elected representatives with a broad education that enables them to cope with rapid change, uncertainty and issues which are divisive and seem to be intractable.
The proposed school of government would have a number of broad educational goals. One would be to develop a sense of history, plus an awareness of the dangers of simple lesson-drawing from the past. Another would be helping politicians to think in systems terms and develop greater capacity to understand complex causal relationships between proposed policy interventions and potential outcomes in society. In addition to strategic and integrative thinking skills, graduates would possess greater tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty. They would become longer term in their thinking, something which election cycles and the problem-specific nature of the parliamentary and media processes discourage. They would accept the need to plan, but also the necessity for improvisation. Awareness of the potential and the limits of various policy instruments available to governments would reduce the frequency of policy failures or disappointments. A great deal of policy-making represents a form of hypotheses testing, through trial and error, as governments seek to learn what works. As part of this experimental approach, politicians would develop greater skills in risk analysis and the identification of valid evidence and usable knowledge for feasible policy making.
Some operational issues need to be resolved. Who will be admitted to the school? I suggest the school offer core introductory courses to all newly elected legislators. Cabinet ministers and “shadow cabinet” would be offered courses with the goal of easing the transition into leading departments and managing portfolios. Courses should also be developed for the political staff – a growing and influential group.
What should be taught? Courses in Canadian society and the economy, the constitution, including federalism, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the principles of collective and individual ministerial responsibility, the machinery of government, including the role of the public service, public finances and the budgetary process, the numerous accountability requirements which now apply to public office holders, and the increased importance of values and ethics in public life.
Along with these broad core subjects, there should be customized, more applied courses for ministers on agenda setting and leading a department, policy and risk analysis, decision-making for busy people, working with public servants, dealing with lobbyists, preparing for parliamentary business (Question Period and committee appearances), communications and political messaging.
Most politicians enter public life from other occupations. Few are lacking in terms of ego, confidence and ambition. This means that the “faculty” must have credibility (not just credentials), excellent presentation skills and the confidence to deal with controversy in a way that will promote learning rather than talking past others. To bridge theory and practice, there must be a carefully selected mix of faculty, including respected former politicians and public servants, consultants, think tank representatives, communications specialists and leading-edge research academics. The pedagogical approach must involve active learning with a minimum of formal presentations, lots of group discussion, the use of role playing, including taped sessions, the analysis of cases, group projects and so on. The content of the courses will have to reflect the shifting context of Canada’s public sector.
Good schools measure and improve their performance. Success would be measured by:
- the reputation of the school and the demands for its courses;
- the careers and reputations of its graduates in terms of their sense of responsibility to serve the public interest;
- the achievement of a better balance in political life between the current heavy emphasis on the skills and techniques of “retail politics” and the knowledge and skills required to govern productively and ethically;
- the gradual emergence of more systematic, evidence-based approaches to policy formulation;
- greater respect and support for the role of an impartial, professional public service as a partner in the production of quality government; and
- less highly charged partisanship in legislatures and more constructive exchanges across party lines, especially in relation to matters where partisan philosophical differences are not relevant.
One of the benefits of the school will be to allow individuals from more diverse social and occupational backgrounds to succeed in elected office.
How will the school be created and financed? In contrast to the Canada School of Public Service and provincial counterparts, which focus on management development, the proposed school should operate as a virtual, networked institution, using venues and faculty from across the country, and target elected officials, their staff, and appointees. CSPS might provide the physical home for the school, which would have a small permanent staff, a director and administrative support. Faculty would be on contract. Courses would be open to interested federal, provincial, territorial and city politicians. Fees would be charged. And, on the assumption that improved governing benefits society at large, private donations could also be sought. Scheduling courses and finding time for politicians from across the country to participate would be difficult, but online sessions and material distributed electronically would provide some flexibility.
Foresight, intelligence, judgment, prudence, civility and integrity are far more important in public life than the skills of selling illusions and attacking political opponents. Now is the time to invest in the development of better political leaders.
Paul G. Thomas is the Duff