Increasingly, job descriptions list “political acuity” as a core competency in government, but what does this include and how does the government executive develop these skills and knowledge?
As a former civil servant and chief-of-staff to a minister, I experienced firsthand the vast difference between civil servants that could “deliver” what the government (and, more specifically, what the minister wanted) and those for whom this was a complete mystery.
How is it that some executives can navigate uncertain waters, read nuances, and successfully employ networks and informal power to achieve their goals and objectives, while others appear to be tone-deaf, dogmatic, process-driven and doomed to failure? The answer lies in one simple concept: political acuity (PA).
Long thought to be something one was born with and could not learn, much new thinking has emerged to analyze this skill set. Many people in organizational behaviour look at topics such as “politics in the workplace” and “political behaviour,” but very little of their work is directly related to government organizations specifically. Because of this, I undertook a study to better understand the nature of the relationship between civil servants and elected officials and their staff.
PA can be defined in many ways, but I believe it is best described as a capacity to analyze situations, devise strategies and employ nuanced knowledge, behaviours, and tactics related to social astuteness, influence, power, and relationships – both formal and informal – in pursuit of a personal agenda or to attain organizational goals and objectives.
Politicians and successful government executives agree it’s important. So, how does one get some? In my view, there are five dimensions to PA knowledge and skills.
1. Understanding formal structures and processes
The development of this essential competency begins with an understanding of formal structures and processes within the organization. In simple terms: understanding who the key players are; where formal sources of power lie; the formal process of decision-making and other processes that exist. An individual with PA is aware of the government’s platform, the legislative framework, mandate letters, policies, procedures, and organization charts.
2. Understanding informal processes
Here we accept that there are sources of power and relationships that exist outside the formal structures and processes. Who are the key decision-makers and influencers? What informal networks and alliances exist? Those with PA have a capacity to see beyond the obvious, and develop and employ informal ways of getting things done, by employing informal relationships and networks, and are able to “connect the dots” by seeing patterns related to understanding and explaining behaviour and outcomes.
3. Environmental factors – climate and culture
Those with PA are able to understand unwritten nuances related to context: what the limitations to actions are; what is acceptable or doable; and what is not. Understanding the organizational realities and considering them in the context of an ever-changing external circumstance encourages individuals with PA to “find a way through” and identify compromise and middle-ground that can be a way forward when others only see roadblocks and constraints.
4. Personalities and organizational politics
All organizations consist of individuals who bring their personalities to work. When these individuals and their agendas collide, there exists a politics to the workplace. Politically astute individuals have a capacity to identify individual personalities, behaviours and the resulting dynamics. These people use their ability to understand people and engage them proactively and strategically.
5. Political factors and underlying issues
Individuals with PA are able to see those factors that drive pressures and behaviours when most of us are at a loss to explain outcomes. Their capacity to anticipate trends, dynamics, and choices, particularly as they relate to how the outside world affects the members of the political elite and their thinking, is a key component of PA. In particular, they are able to see beyond the surface and detect motivation, and go beyond the cursory explanation for why things are the way they are, or why they happen the way they do.
Clearly, PA is the kind of skill one necessarily learns at school, but it is an important one to master in order to deliver on challenging goals in complex organizations such as government.