Get Rewarded Negatively for Doing the Right Thing.
We tend to think about parliamentary democracy as the high water mark of human political achievement. Some countries are so in awe of it, they even try to export it around the globe. But, is parliamentary democracy actually a recipe for mediocrity? One late night comedian quipped: “In a recent fire Enda Kenny’s library burned down. Both books were lost. And he hadn’t even finished colouring one of them.” But let’s circle above the question of individual capability and take a systems-view of how politics works.
Status Quo: At the heart of parliamentary democracy there is a fundamental dilemma. Politicians have to get re-elected every four or five years. To get elected they need to be ‘popular’ on local issues. And, as Tip O’Neill, the former speaker of the House of Representatives in the US reminded us, all politics are local. To state the obvious, being popular is the opposite of being unpopular. It follows that when politicians support unpopular issues (in Ireland, think septic tanks or water metering charges); they run the risk of losing their seat. So, this issue of maintaining popularity is central to being a successful politician. We say that we don’t value Parish Pump (in the USA, Pork Barrel) Politics. We claim that we want to elect intelligent statesmen and women. Then, at the polls, we continually re-elect politicians who get the lighting fixed on our street or secure a house for our half-mad Uncle. Historically, the most successful politicians, like Bertie Ahern, understood this fundamental point all too well. They took the tip from Tip, and tipped the balance! Try saying that sentence after 12 Bacardi’s and Cokes.
Non-Elected: Those of us who don’t have to get re-elected continually talk about the diamond opportunity to reform the public sector and make sweeping changes to the Irish taxation and social welfare systems. We decry the fact that the government has effectively ignored the quip from Rahm Emanuel to “Never waste a good crisis” and seem to have settled for minor modifications to the status quo. The political tree has been denuded of all the low hanging fruit (like the Croke Park Agreement). But would we be any different if faced with similar hard choices? Look at the most recent political race in America.
Coloured States: Most of us are familiar with the Red (Republican) and Blue (Democratic) states. To oversimplify, the red states want the government to lower taxes and for people to take care of themselves in a form of ‘winner takes all’. The blue states want the government to play a wealth redistribution role, more akin to our European model. So, what sort of big decisions fall out of this? It turns out that there are enormously important decisions in the space between blue and red. Example: In relation to health care, ‘end of life spending’ (the amount of money spent on a person in the final year of their life) typically equates to what has been spent on them in the previous 20 years. As a society, we are spending a huge amount of money keeping very old people alive. Should we? Or should people who particularly want to stay alive in this supported state, pay an additional insurance policy to cover this? Likewise, should people with obesity and smokers pay extra policy premiums? These are brutally tough questions without easy answers. And the political world is made up of similar choices. Cut public sector pay or the Home Carers allowance? Stop building schools or stall the new Children’s Hospital in Dublin? And so on.
Managerial Life: In the consulting game, we continually challenge organizations and sometimes have to confront individuals. Our core stance is to establish authentic relationships, to have real conversations, without fear of where the ‘next invoice’ is going to come from. Of course, I’d like to believe that if I was a politician this authentic style would be quite similar. But would it? During the current recession all executives are faced with making unpopular decisions. Unless you are a psychopath, you probably don’t relish announcing pay cuts or laying people off. But, then, you don’t have to get re-elected. So, the next time you are mouthing off against politicians in general, just think about how you might respond if your job was dependant on a popular vote from staff and how this might affect your decision-making.
Good News: Those of us, who are simply tasked with managing organizations, don’t have to be re-elected. It follows that we have zero excuse for not cracking on with making deep changes that will secure the future of our organizations. Lead or get out of the way. Isn’t that what we are paid to do?
By Paul Mooney (PHD)
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