Political parties and candidates spend most of their time proposing policies they promise will improve voters’ lives if elected to government. But actually delivering on those promises requires another kind of political operative: staffers.
These taxpayer-funded employees or advisers play crucial roles, and yet they are often mismanaged. Staffers can be the hidden heroes – or villains – of the political process. When they occasionally make headlines, it is almost invariably for the wrong reasons.
Parliamentary reviews in Australia, Britain and New Zealand have documented various problems. Those who take on these jobs rarely receive effective training, work incredibly long hours, sacrifice their personal lives and experience high levels of stress – if not outright clinical distress.
Public servants themselves have taken the initiative, including offering advice to MPs on managing staff, establishing a Parliamentary Workplace Support Service in Australia, introducing respectful workplace policies in Canada, and establishing behavioural expectations in New Zealand’s parliament.
However, my new research – based on interviews with advisers to former prime ministers Scott Morrison (Australia), Boris Johnson (Britain) and Jacinda Ardern (New Zealand), and Canada’s current leader Justin Trudeau – concludes that political parties need to take the lead if they want to deliver their agenda once elected.
Proper recruitment processes
Better management of political staff requires better planning. As one longstanding chief of staff told me, reflecting on their eight years in government:
If I could whisper in someone’s ear into the future, I’d say really take that time on organisation. How you set things up can make such a difference to your success at delivery.
New governments have to fill a high number of posts all at once. They are a bit like a business start-up, except they are running a country. They often make problematic hires, or start without sufficient staff. As one UK staffer explained:
Parties need to give a lot more thought to year-round recruitment and talent identification, because you can’t just suddenly turn up at Downing Street and put a new machine together.
Parties therefore need to identify potential talent before an election. They also need to look beyond the usual circles to find the right people. Campaign volunteers won’t automatically be suitable. Those with relevant skills may not be lifelong party members.
Scouting talent means having initial conversations followed by professional selection processes. Ultimately, it’s about ensuring those selected are capable of doing the actual job – not simply rewarding loyalty.
Managing the political workplace
Those likely to be involved in managing staff need to be trained on best practice within a political workplace. This applies not only to chiefs of staff, but to anyone in a senior role or who heads a team.
For example, political staffers need ongoing feedback, and not merely when things go wrong. They also need help with managing the never-ending workload, identifying priorities and where best to focus their time.
Maintaining wellbeing and avoiding burnout means instigating rules: limiting late-evening contact unless there’s a crisis, for example, and encouraging staff to take occasional but complete breaks from work.
Setting a clear shared purpose will also help people see the difference their work is making over time. One former staffer put it this way:
Maintaining morale is a big part of political management […] things get bad and can get dark in offices.
Orientation and training
Because there is often a lack of human resource management infrastructure for political staffers, parties need effective staff training systems. A senior staffer recalled to me:
I remember walking into the office on the first day after the prime minister was sworn in, and it was empty. It was just me. No handover, nothing.
Some of this is inevitable – parties and leaders just voted out are unlikely to provide much continuity. And the public service is wary of straying into partisan matters. But incoming parties need to take action to fill the gap.
More experienced staffers would ideally spend time mentoring and supporting newer colleagues. Yet a party new to power won’t have many veteran staff to call on. They may need to find former senior staff willing to return and share their wisdom, or make use of relevant research.
Bespoke training programmes relevant to specific roles need to be created. These can include generic topics, such as maintaining respectful workplaces, time and project management, and maintaining resilience. But they should also have political context about advancing party policies and priorities.
Finally, all political staffers need to be seen as one community, regardless of which office they work in. It’s much harder to instil positive workplace norms and practices if everyone exists in silos.
People will also support one other and learn from their peers if they are connected through regular events. These can build relationships between staffers in different offices. In turn, this helps advance policy in government.
Anyone serious about becoming prime minister or seeking political office should start thinking about those hidden heroes – political staffers – before an election, not after it.
Winning power is only the beginning, after all.