Developing political skills

 
 
It is assumed that you acquire political awareness and sensitivity on your way up the career ladder and if you don't then you don't move up. Managers are all too often left to learn by their mistakes. Unfortunately in a political environment  those mistakes may mean that members lose confidence in them making the manager considerably less effective.
 
Despite its importance, most middle and senior managers have never had any training or development in political skills.
 
This isn't good for the organisation or service transformation. Training to develop managers political skills would increase their political awareness and sensitivity and help them understand how democratic accountability impacts on decision making in the public sector.
 
Many public sector managers have a cynical view of politicians whether it's their  MP or local councillors. They experience them saying one thing in committee and then appearing to say another on public, they agree the overwhelming case for action and then backdown in the face of public opposition, they seem more interested in getting their photo in the local paper than getting the job done and they blame officers for unpopular decisions and leave officers to defend their policies.
 
A training course to increase political awareness and sensitivity needs to challenge these negative attitudes and examine the role of the local politician , recognise the many hats they wear, the tension between being a good party member and a good constituent representative. To start with why do people become local councillors, why do they agree to attend all those dull meetings and give up so many evening and weekends? It isn't for the money most don't get paid, it isn't for the status and it isn't for the power most aren't even in the cabinet.
 
As a Director I commission a one day training course for managers to develop their political sensitivity and awe redness. The course was delivered by a recently retired local authority senior manager who had lots of experience working with members ( politicians ). The cabinet member for social services agreed to deliver a secession covering why they became a councillor ,how they spend their time and what they expect from officers. I also delivered a session focusing on the difference between making a business case and recognising what was politically doable. We had plenty of topical material to examine, closure of old people homes and libraries, the location of an industrial incinerator as part of the wast disposal strategy and a recent campaign in the local paper over the number of pot holes in the roads. All those attending had their own examples of being put under pressure by a councillor taking up a case on behalf of a constituent or being asked to draft a response to an MPs letter justifying a decision. 
 
The one day course was over subscribe with the biggest demand from first line managers. Another two courses were booked. The feedback was such that the course was commissioned again for the following year. Material arising out of the course was posted on the organisations intranet for all managers to access. The material was access by several councillors who were very positive about the way the course recognised the tension between being a good party member and a good constituency councillor, between supporting a strategy for wast disposal but campaigning against the location of the incinerator in their ward or supporting service cuts as part of the budget and then arguing on behalf of a constituent who would suffer unduly as a result. On their part managers came away recognising that members put a lot of hours into the role, genuinely wanted to make a difference and were prepared to make unpopular decision but were often frustrated that the extent of the councils financial support for voluntary and community groups went unnoticed.
 
The course was not designed for senior managers who by the nature of their role would be familiar with this material but the view of my colleagues was that they wished such a course had been available when they started out.
 
Blair McPherson author of Equipping managers for an uncertain future published by Russell House ww.blairmcpherson.co.uk 
 
 
 
 
 

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