Training Trump: Why we need to train our politicians in political management

Jennifer Lees-Marshment

Later this year New Zealanders will choose who gets to run the government for the next three years, and whoever is elected will manage a budget of more than $90billion a year and have hundreds – maybe even thousands – of staff at their disposal. In the United States, new President Donald Trump took charge of the biggest government in the world with an annual federal budget in excess of $3trillion, a White House budget of over $3billion, and over a million federal government staff.

However, the chances of the newly-elected President or Prime Minister delivering campaign promises are slim. There are many reasons for this, but an often overlooked one is that politicians and their staff do not get training in how to run government: the lack of professional development standards is shocking. President Trump has no experience running government and soon after he won the 2016 election, media reports included headlines such as Donald Trump ‘didn’t realise the scope of the presidency and will need help from Barack Obama’; and ‘Trump ‘seemed surprised’ with the scope of the president’s job when meeting Obama. Other reports noted the lack of a Trump transition plan and difficulties the new administration was having recruiting staff. If Labour leader Andrew Little becomes New Zealand Prime Minister later this year, he too will get into power without training or experience in how to manage government effectively. Like John Key and other opposition leaders before him, there is no adequate training in political management. Last year John Key commented, ‘when I became Prime Minister I’d never been a Minister. I remember asking Tony Ryall – because he’d been a minister – basically what does a cabinet paper look like; how does the process work? I’d seen one obviously in the work we’d done but how does it all work? I’d just gone straight into being PM.’ Equally those advising them and their senior team often come from the private sector or lack management skills.

Political management is very important – it affects the ability of political organisations and governments to achieve their goals and get things done. Trump pointed to his business record during the campaign; some politicians have training in business management; and Little has led a political party and a large trade union. But politics is not business: leaders in government and politics are more constricted by stakeholders than their private sector counterparts and they face more complex expectations, and need to meet value rather than profit-led goals. Further, government is bigger than political parties or most businesses: as a UK civil servant noted ‘most MPs have never been responsible for managing even a 100 people and they are suddenly put in charge of managing sometimes 10,000 people or more. They’ve never ever managed a budget of a million quid, and suddenly they are managing budgets of say 70 billion quid.’ New Zealand academics Chris Eichbaum and Richard Shaw quote a government staffer saying ‘Most ministers certainly don’t have time to review their [advisers’] performance, and most ministers don’t have any management skills anyway.’ There are profound challenges to getting things done in politics, and media reports highlight problematic recruitment processes, stressful work environments, over-control, chaos and high staff turnover

Despite this, there is no comprehensive research and training on political management, so it is not surprising there is such problematic practice. The two MAs called political management at George Washington University in the United States and Carleton University in Canada focus on teaching campaigns and communication. Management requires planning, organisation and leadership; it is about the maximisation of resources, not selling a product. As one chief of staff said to me last year, the lack of books on political management means staff end up relying on the television series The West Wing.

So what is political management then? I started work on this last year, identifying core business management concepts, and then searching for research on politics that might be related to this. As I presented at the Canadian Political Studies Association and the New Zealand Political Studies Association, political management is about planning, organising, human resource management, and, leading and reviewing of resources to achieve goals effectively. It involves setting a vision, goals and creating plans; devising effective structures, culture and communication within organisations such as government departments and the Prime Minister’s office; the recruitment, promotion, and training of all staff; using effective leadership tools to persuade people to act how you want; and reviewing performance before taking steps to improve it.

It includes issues of how political appointments are made; how staff are rewarded to encourage high performance; how political offices are organised; how much Prime Ministers and Presidents control or micro-manage ministers or staff; how effectively the government and departments within it plan and strategise to achieve priorities; how leadership is exercised over others; and how well political organisations learn from reflection and review. It raises dilemmas such as the trade-off between over-control and efficiency shown by the previous Harper government in Canada and more fluid, organic cultures so far favoured by his successor Trudeau, that offers more freedom for staff but which might result in a less coherent strategy and public brand, and risks things not getting done, as well as risking re-election.

Basically, political management is everything that can affect the ability of government to get things done. And it is about ensuring resources – public money – is used to the best possible effect. We need to fill this massive gap in research to understand what political management is and how to use it effectively, and train our leaders properly. Until then the quality of how we are governed, and how easy it is for our chosen leaders to do what they said they would, is always going to compromised. Whilst some might prefer some of the promises made by certain politicians – such as walls – to be blocked, such challenges also affected Bill Clinton and Obama’s goal to implement universal health-care. Better management by Obama might have left it more secure. Training Trump is not going to be an easy task, but it is vital to research and teach political management to politicians and government staff for the good of New Zealand and the world.

Categories: Democracy
Jennifer Lees-Marshment
About the author

Jennifer Lees-Marshment

Jennifer Lees-Marshment is Associate Professor at Auckland University and a world expert in political marketing. She is author/editor of 13 books including The Ministry of Public Input (Palgrave 2015), Political Marketing in Canada (UBC, 2012) and Political Marketing in the US (Routledge 2014). Her research interests include political marketing, consultation, leadership, and governance. See or email for further details.