“Send in the clowns” – Which qualifications do our politicians need precisely?

“Send in the clowns”, titled The Economist after the recent parliamentary elections in Italy when the party of the comedian Beppe Grillo won 25% of the total votes and the party of Silvio Berlusconi 30%.

Economist Italy Elections Send in the clowns

Of course the views of clowns on developments in society and politics can be refreshing and stimulating. Yet the professional qualification as a clown is unlikely to be a suitable qualification to steer our countries with tens or hundreds of millions of people in the time of globalization. It must be doubted that clowns will have the capacities to create jobs for millions of people, the most pressing issues in many European states at this point in time or perhaps to even select people with the required qualifications for this job. Since the US have had at least two world renowned actors as top nation or state leaders we must of course also ask under which conditions actors can be suitable heads of government. Are intelligence, integrity, and honesty, criteria which clowns and actors might fulfill, sufficient as qualifications to lead our nations and the globe?

“Whether policy making oriented towards the needs of the majority of people is successful, depends ultimately on the capacities and the character of the leading persons in politics”, writes the German law Professor Hans Peter Bull in a recent article on democracy in a paper. But which qualifications do our politicians require precisely for their tasks? And how do we make sure that our politicians in fact possess these qualifications?

One perspective on the tasks of our politicians is that they are responsible for public funds of hundreds of billions of Euros or Pounds or other currency equivalents, or in the case of the USA even for a few trillion of USD, and at the same time for organizations which employ hundreds of thousands or even up to 2-3 million of public employees, the numbers quoted in some analyses for France, Germany, and Italy for example. In comparison the largest private corporation in the world, the US retailer Walmart has revenues in the area of 400 billion USD and about 2.2 million employees, the tenth largest private corporation in terms of employees, Aviation Industry Corporation of China, has about 500 000 employees and revenues of about 240 billion USD (2011 numbers).

As the comparison illustrates, our politicians operate organizations which are at least as large as the largest private corporations in the world. Our politicians must make sure that the gigantic organizations they lead are structured and perform optimally and that they generate a maximum of benefits to the public out of the sizeable amounts of tax money or other public funds they require for their work. The work of our politicians contains a significant, if not a dominant element of management responsibility.

Against this view one might contend that the Civil Service has its own management which “supports” the politicians in their leadership jobs. That view would mean the tail is wagging the dog. We rather elect our heads of government as the key persons we look to in running our states as effectively as only possible and to “sort out things” in the public sphere for us, when they have gone wrong. Our heads of government must lead, not only in policy design, but also in policy implementation.

What are the tasks of our politicians, especially of our Heads of Government, in more detail? They must identify the public concerns of the people and any risks for the well-being of society from economic, technological, environmental or other developments. They must identify which issues are more critical than others, jobs, infrastructure, defense and global stability, health, education, welfare programs, or the exploration of space, a difficult task since many of those aspects are interdependent. More education might generate more jobs and more production, more tax income, and allow for better infrastructure and social services, but more education without simultaneous other measures to create jobs might be a waste of funds. Politicians need the methodical skills to analyze and assess these complex interdependencies. Having set adequate priorities they must raise and assign public funds to these issues. Finally they must design and implement strategies, they must establish the effective organizations mentioned above and effective control mechanisms, and they must co-ordinate the work of public institutions at various regional levels in a country.

Also the look at these individual tasks tells us that policy making is to a large degree a management task. As polls have shown, citizens in fact primarily expect from their politicians effectiveness and efficiency in delivering public policy. Implicitly also citizens attribute the highest importance to the practical management skills of their politicians rather than to “soft” skills, such as presentation and communication.

Of course many other qualities are of importance for the work of politicians such as intelligence, integrity, depth of thinking, openness and creativity, modesty, the capacity to communicate simple manners in a comprehensible fashion, negotiating skills, and finally a certain understanding of political processes. We should specify and weigh all these skills and qualifications in job descriptions for politicians just like in job descriptions for any other job. It is astounding that every accountant, nurse, or engineer must fulfill specific job requirements. Only our politicians don’t, even if the well-being of our entire societies and the state of the world depends on these qualifications. It is amazing that so far we mostly vote for politicians, because they can present their ideas in charismatic and convincing style, not because they fulfill a “hard” qualification profile. If democracy is ineffective it seems to be to a large degree our own fault, since we do not specify the qualifications our politicians need and do not ensure they comply with those requirements.

Many observers make proposals on how to ensure the qualification of politicians for their jobs. In an article for the web-journal opendemocracy Takis S Pappas from Greece suggested in 2011 for example an open list electoral system which would allow voters to choose among individual political candidates rather than on the basis of their party affiliation. Using such an open procedure or a traditional party list we could make it a precondition that anybody wanting to work as the Head of Government or head of any government department must fulfill a minimum qualification catalogue before they are even allowed to stand for election. We could select the five candidates which fit our objective qualification criteria best, then have them present their views thoroughly on TV and elect the best one of these five candidates.

Governing our countries and the world is an extremely complex task, whichever procedures for electing the best candidates we might select. We should in any case, therefore, never rely on a single person to have the required or even optimal knowledge for this task. In addition to making sure that our politicians have certain minimal qualifications we will still need an effective know-how system on how to run a country optimally, an institution which our politicians can draw upon in decision and strategy making and in setting up effective public organizations. Furthermore, as pointed out in other parts of this blog, we as citizens and highest sovereign in democratic states need a control system to make sure that the head of government, the ministers, and the public organizations in fact apply the state of the art know-how in governing the country for the benefit of all citizens, do not risk the state through incompetent policy making or work for their own interests.

What happened with the proposal made by Takis S Pappas in 2011 on the open-list system for elections? Has anybody examined it? Has it been accepted, rejected, or refined and implemented? Where are the results of our thinking about how to improve democracy? What the example shows is that our democratic nations most urgently need an effective organization to discuss and evaluate proposals like the one made by Pappas or made here on the qualifications of politicians, so we get to the best concrete concepts as soon as possible.

The sand glass for our task to make our democratic policy systems effective appears to be running. The social and political stability in many democratic countries is at stake, people even get frustrated with democracy itself, while it is the only form of government which guarantees their freedom. To maintain stable and equitable societies, to maintain the globe in a good state we must improve the performance of our democratic policy making systems, and that as soon as possible. One step for which we, as citizens, are responsible is making sure that our politicians are qualified for their tasks.

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