Can democracies afford incompetent leaders? The case for training politicians
Should politicians be trained to do their jobs better? Or is it fine that they learn on the job? In this piece I look at why they should be trained; current examples of training around the world; and some options for the future.
It is an oddity of democracies that this, perhaps most important, of roles is treated more casually than any other. Other positions of leadership require skills: years of education are required for lawyers, doctors, scientists and even business Chief Executives. Yet for politicians there is little if any training and the primary methods of selection test for qualities that only loosely align with those needed once in post.
I admire many politicians for their commitment and willingness to serve - the stereotypes which picture them all as self-serving liars are a long way from the truth. But I have seen too many - particularly in the UK in recent years - who were completely out of their depth, wholly unprepared for the kinds of decisions they had to make.
Luckily there are some examples from around the world that can provide inspiration for anyone wanting to grapple with this. China invests heavily in training its leaders, who must attend party schools (and institutions such as CELAP in Shanghai, pictured below), write essays that are marked, and stay on top of the leading ideas in technology or law (while also confirming their familiarity with Marxism–Leninism). The seriousness of their attention to skills and capacities contrasts strikingly with the democracies.
In the West there are a few examples of more serious training. The US businessman and former Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, has financed extensive training programmes for Mayors and their staff from around the world, in partnership with Harvard.
In Australia the McKinnon Institute, backed by an entrepreneur, has recently developed an academy for politicians, with a sophisticated curriculum and participation from the main parties, which also provides an excellent model for other countries.
These various programmes help current and prospective politicians to stay abreast of geopolitics, technology or law, or put them through simulations to understand how to make decisions under pressure, or get them to role-play with things like budget allocations.
I’ve been involved in all of the programmes mentioned above – and others, including a short-lived programme to train junior ministers in the UK in the late 1990s; a successful training programme for thousands of young leaders (Uprising); various schemes to train politicians in the use of evidence (which we did through the Alliance for Useful Evidence at political party conferences and in parliament); networks in Europe (such as Open Europe Dialogue and the German party-linked foundations), and there are new programmes being offered for politicians by the network Apolitical.
Most parliaments - and some parties - provide training on the more technical aspects of how to be member of a legislature, and some others provide training on the practicalities of being a minister (such as the Institute for Government in the UK).
But, in most democracies, it is felt inappropriate to spend public money on preparing politicians in any broader sense and all of these (with the exception of China) are fairly modest in scale.
As a result even the smartest politicians struggle. The problems are most obvious in relation to science. Politics needs to come to positions about science - like knowing when to lockdown a society in a pandemic, whether to invest in fusion or quantum, or how to pursue a net zero strategy.
But politicians find it difficult to understand what they are governing in any detail and the gulf between what they know and what could be known grows with each decade. Science becomes incomprehensible to other scientists and even more so to outsiders - as the recent floundering over AI shows all too clearly.
It can help to have leaders – like Angela Merkel or Margaret Thatcher – with some grounding in science. China has increasingly filled the upper echelons of its leadership with scientists and engineers. But Merkel’s achievements in quantum chemistry and Margaret Thatcher’s in X-ray crystallography may have given them little feel for computer science or physics, any more than speaking one foreign language necessarily gives you privileged access to another one.
The result is that even the best politicians are often in effect ‘structurally incompetent’. I remember, for example, the challenges faced by my one-time boss Tony Blair. He was well intentioned; instinctively pro-science and pro-technology; and knew he should be engaged. But he simply lacked the experience to know what good looked like and it was easy for the charismatic bosses of big digital companies to take advantage of him.
I am convinced we need to take political training much more seriously and that no democracy can afford to ignore this issue (we should also, of course, do much more to help citizens understand how decisions are made and how they can exercise their power, but that's a topic for another day).
At least five design questions follow for anyone trying to create the new training programmes for politicians that we need:
When in their career? The closer politicians come to power the less time they have to learn (though China requires even the most senior to set aside time for learning). So the challenge is to find the high flyers with good prospects of power but who may have enough time for a week long course or periodic updates.
What mix of knowledge and mindsets? Much of what politicians need is knowledge, about science and technology, geopolitics, law, psychology and more. But all of my experience in training for government suggests that it’s just as important to emphasise mindsets. For a detailed account see this piece which I hope is also very relevant to the detail of any curriculum for politicians.
What mix of external and internal knowledge? A related issue is how much to focus on skills and knowledge, and how much to focus on inner knowledge, character and self-understanding. I’ve observed that many programmes start with the first but move over time to a bigger emphasis on the second: how to learn the resilience to cope with setbacks, how to recognize one’s own flaws, how to build up inner strengths. This generally requires very different modes of learning.
Individuals or teams? Often practising politicians need to learn alongside their core teams - and this is an approach that Bloomberg has taken with Harvard, partly to give them a shared language as they grapple with difficult issues.
Who will pay? Finally, as mentioned earlier, there is the question of who should pay. It is strange that in democracies much of the funding for this comes from philanthropy. This seems crazy to me. My hope is that philanthropists can help to fill some of the gaps, not least in the UK and across Europe, but in order to normalize learning for politicians so that in time this can be publicly supported.
Finally, a few words on the upstream preparation. France used ENA to train generations of both senior officials and prospective politicians (including President Macron). But ENA was recently closed and recreated it in a new form (INSP – see below). Part of this reinvention is aiming to encourage a less detached, arrogant governing elite, emphasizing instead engagement with the public and lived experience.
In the UK, a century ago, Oxford University created a new course – Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) – designed to nurture a cadre of leaders. Many British prime ministers and ministers took it (as did I). But its emphasis on macroeconomics and analytical philosophy doesn’t sit well with a world of pandemics and climate change (which is why I went onto do a PhD in technology).
Instead, we need a new curriculum for power: one that includes awareness of data, systems and complexity, of engineering as well as science, psychology as well as philosophy.
I’ve been part of the team developing a new course at UCL – science and engineering for social change – that seeks to teach the key understandings relevant to issues like decarbonization and public health, and in my mind this is much more a PPE for the 21st century.
I am obviously biased but the kind of curriculum set out below seems to me what democracies could be seeking from their universities, alongside the continuing flow of lawyers and economists who tend to dominate politics and the civil service:
Here we begin to see a possible future curriculum for power. Later in the year I will be publishing a much more systematic survey of the current state of training for governments, covering MPAs in many universities, the work of civil service colleges of all kinds, as well as the programmes mentioned here, with some clear messages about how many of these have lagged behind what governments actually need.
Devoting time to learning would be useful in every way for democracy. The aim should be to make politics and democracy cognitively ‘thick’: rich in shared knowledge, knowledge about knowledge and the ability to synthesize across multiple domains. Indeed, a mature polity needs a large repertoire of different ways of mobilizing knowledge – from expert panels and reviews to inquiries, crowdsourcing and citizen assemblies, fit for different tasks, and able to loop back to explain why a particular method or knowledge source is used for a particular issue (my forthcoming book 'When Science Meets Power' sets these out in much more detail).
I'm not holding my breath. I fear we are condemned for the time-being to be ruled by politicians without much of the knowledge or skill they need. But perhaps this is one space where conventional wisdom will switch. In the meantime, whenever we hear a politician give a speech extolling the virtues of education and training, we should ask them why politics has to be an exception.