Can politicians be managers? Can managers be politicians?
Monday, 16 February 2015 00:00
It is a good time to reflect on some of the challenges of creating a wonderful world.
Every time a new team takes office, there is a great expectation that wonderful things will happen. Strong economic growth, cost of living coming down, dynamic strategies developed and pursued in industry, agriculture, tourism, etc., and exports. A transformation of society as promised in the election campaigns.
This would encompass the complete eradication of bribery and corruption, nepotism, thuggery and the restoration of the rule of law, etc.
Can this be done?
Whether itâ€™s the current new team or a new team after the next election, the issues remain the same. A host of questions bubble through. Will all that is promised happen? Is this a realistic expectation?
To find the answers one must drill down to probe the skills, and talent available in any new team, and the commitment to change society, and then hopefully a picture may emerge of what can, and what cannot, be done.
What can be done
Some things can be done if there is a will and commitment (without the need for any special skills). A new team can make a firm decision that they will not accept bribes. They can commit to abstain from thuggery. They can decide to refrain from appointing relatives to important posts. These are the sorts of things a new team can do if they want to do so.
There are other things that are totally dependent on special skills. No doubt a new team will have intelligent people, with sound common sense. But, to deliver results, what is more important: intelligence, common sense or good management experience?
If you beseech the Gods to answer through the medium of a coin as to what is more important, management experience or good common sense and then flip a coin, it will always come down on the side of management experience.
A new team
Does a team have a host of experienced managers? The probable answer is, only a small number with good management experience, but a large number with good political experience.
Politics should rightly be perceived as a discipline. It is not taught in universities and people must graduate in the university of the real world. The successful politician is a very special type of person, as they have got a hard-to-get degree in politics from the university of the real world.
Successful politicians have special skills. Whilst developing and practising these skills, there was probably neither time or the need or any other good reason to acquire the skills of top level management.
They are like professional cricketers. To be successful they have to be totally focused on cricket. Good cricketers, however much they like soccer, cannot be top fettle footballers as well as being top class cricketers, as cricket demands a full time commitment. So does politics. It demands a full time commitment.
Single discipline environment
The world has evolved into a single discipline environment. To be outstanding a person has to concentrate on one discipline. To be successful in any discipline, a person must have an aptitude for that discipline.
A politician must be people-friendly; genuinely like spending time with people; have the ability to do a host of possibly-boring things, like attending weddings, funerals, writing letters of recommendation for people who do not deserve to be recommended. These are the qualities required. The skills required are many, ranging from good public speaking to managing the heavies that one must have in the local political scene.
Politics and management
The development of the aptitudes or the skills of politics will not prepare a person to be a good manager. Academic degrees prior to entering politics may help a person to be a more successful politician. A politician with a degree does not equate to being a good manager. But the key to being a good manager is gathering the work experience of management.
Management is a discipline. A part of the knowledge relevant to it can be acquired through degrees of one kind or another, but it is experience that makes the difference. To be a high level manager, a person must have the experience of having performed as a high level manager. A person has to climb the management ladder, learning and gaining experience in the art and science of management to become a high level manager. There is no short cut. Therefore the politician who has not done a conventional top management job cannot be expected to perform at this level if he is appointed a minister.
In addition to the general skills of management, the management of specific industries require high level knowledge of that industry. To lead the Agriculture Ministry, a person must have a good level knowhow of agriculture; similarly for every other industry.
Will the electoral system throw up politicians with these skills? Probably not. If that be the case, how can they provide the dynamic leadership to these industries?
Making managers politicians
Is the solution to the problem, to find people with good management skills, and to then make them politicians? Is it possible to carefully select people with the appropriate skills for each ministry and then make them the candidates for election?
Like politicians who have no management experience, managers do not have any political experience. If you put managers up as parliamentary candidates, they will lose out to the experienced politicians. Is it possible for the managers to learn quickly the art of politics?
Some skills like public speaking and relating fanciful stories without batting an eye lid maybe within the compass of something that can be learnt quickly, but the rest of what needs to be done to nurse an electorate so as to ensure that one is elected is not something that can be learned in a crash course.
Why do we not have chaos?
Why do we not have complete chaos because politicians are not good managers and we do not have good managers who are politicians? The answer lies in the fact that nearly all the income-generating activity in Sri Lanka is in the hands of the private sector.
The private sector is not merely the big public quoted companies. It includes everyone from farmers to shopkeepers to artisans and the raft of SME sector businesses. The private sector is smart and efficient and has been growing well. They do not need politicians. However, politicians can muddy the wicket and make it difficult for the private sector to score runs! What the private sector needs from politicians is a good wicket and a fast outfield. That is infrastructure that facilitates growth.
What falls outside the purview of the private sector are State-Owned Institutions like power, water, hospitals. The smooth functioning of these institutions depends on Government servants. In the major service institutions, there is a very good rank and file skill base, but the problem is with top management.
There are two reasons that mitigate against public servants being successful managers. Most of them at the top level do not remain in any one sector for long enough to acquire a real understanding of the sector. In addition, they have to manage whilst ducking and weaving around political interference, which impairs good management. There is a real challenge to get sustained good management of State enterprises.
Role of the politician
They can play a key role in creating a society with good values. Provide leadership to create a transparent society free of bribery and corruption at all levels. They can cease to indulge in political interference. As they are close to the people, they can inject into the strategy-forming process the needs and aspirations of the people
Everything must flow from an overall strategy. The principal role of a government is to formulate the big picture strategy for the country. This has to be built up in blocks that encompass the various sectors of the economy. As politicians are not good managers, and there are no managers who are politicians, formulating strategy is a challenge.
The development of strategy will benefit from a triple input. The role of the politician is to bring into perspective the views and aspirations of the people. The civil servants will address the issues of implementing the agreed strategy. The remaining piece is an input from the best brains in the country on the development of the sectors. So if itâ€™s tea, the expertise of those in the tea industry is vital. If it is tourism, the views of all the components parts of the tourism industry are vital.
There is a need for a mechanism that brings all the components together to formulate strategy. There was an innovative arrangement put in place during the last regime of President Chandrika Kumaratunga. It was called the National Council for Economic Development and generally referred to as the NCED. This brought together in individual clusters the best brains on the subject, the relevant officials and the politician.
Proposals developed were then presented to the President, the relevant Minister and the Ministry staff. After discussion the plans for each sector were finalised. This worked well, but slowly through time it has waned, as the succeeding president did not share the same enthusiasm for the process. It is time to revive it.
[Lalith de Mel, M.A (Cambridge University) AMP (Harvard), is a former Main Board Director of Reckitt Benckiser Plc UK and CDC Plc UK, former Chairman of Sri Lanka Telecom Plc and Board of Investment, Senior Advisor to the Ministry of Finance and Chairman and Director of many companies both in Sri Lanka and abroad.]