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Thought Piece | Can Democracies Afford Incompetent Leaders? The Case for Training Politicians

Geoff Mulgan, University College London


In this article, Sir Geoff Mulgan CBE, Professor of Collective Intelligence, Public Policy and Social Innovation at University College London, calls attention to the lack of training devoted to elected politicians. In the context of his appeal for more and better training opportunities for our political class, he highlights the work APROPOS' Open European Dialogue as an example to draw inspiration from.


Below, you can read an extract from Sir Geoff Mulgan's article, originally published on geoffmulgan.com.

Should politicians be trained to do their jobs better? Or is it fine that they learn on the job? In this piece I look at why they should be trained; current examples of training around the world; and some options for the future. It is an oddity of democracies that this, perhaps most important, of roles is treated more casually than any other. Other positions of leadership require skills: years of education are required for lawyers, doctors, scientists and even business Chief Executives. Yet for politicians there is little if any training and the primary methods of selection test for qualities that only loosely align with those needed once in post. I admire many politicians for their commitment and willingness to serve - the stereotypes which picture them all as self-serving liars are a long way from the truth. But I have seen too many - particularly in the UK in recent years - who were completely out of their depth, wholly unprepared for the kinds of decisions they had to make. Luckily there are some examples from around the world that can provide inspiration for anyone wanting to grapple with this. China invests heavily in training its leaders, who must attend party schools (and institutions such as CELAP in Shanghai, pictured below), write essays that are marked, and stay on top of the leading ideas in technology or law (while also confirming their familiarity with Marxism–Leninism). The seriousness of their attention to skills and capacities contrasts strikingly with the democracies. In the West there are a few examples of more serious training. The US businessman and former Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, has financed extensive training programmes for Mayors and their staff from around the world, in partnership with Harvard. In Australia the McKinnon Institute, backed by an entrepreneur, has recently developed an academy for politicians, with a sophisticated curriculum and participation from the main parties, which also provides an excellent model for other countries. These various programmes help current and prospective politicians to stay abreast of geopolitics, technology or law, or put them through simulations to understand how to make decisions under pressure, or get them to role-play with things like budget allocations. I’ve been involved in all of the programmes mentioned above – and others, including a short-lived programme to train junior ministers in the UK in the late 1990s; a successful training programme for thousands of young leaders (Uprising); various schemes to train politicians in the use of evidence (which we did through the Alliance for Useful Evidence at political party conferences and in parliament); networks in Europe (such as Open Europe Dialogue and the German party-linked foundations), and there are new programmes being offered for politicians by the network Apolitical.


Most parliaments - and some parties - provide training on the more technical aspects of how to be member of a legislature, and some others provide training on the practicalities of being a minister (such as the Institute for Government in the UK).


But, in most democracies, it is felt inappropriate to spend public money on preparing politicians in any broader sense and all of these (with the exception of China) are fairly modest in scale.


As a result even the smartest politicians struggle. The problems are most obvious in relation to science. Politics needs to come to positions about science - like knowing when to lockdown a society in a pandemic, whether to invest in fusion or quantum, or how to pursue a net zero strategy.


But politicians find it difficult to understand what they are governing in any detail and the gulf between what they know and what could be known grows with each decade. Science becomes incomprehensible to other scientists and even more so to outsiders - as the recent floundering over AI shows all too clearly.


It can help to have leaders – like Angela Merkel or Margaret Thatcher – with some grounding in science. China has increasingly filled the upper echelons of its leadership with scientists and engineers. But Merkel’s achievements in quantum chemistry and Margaret Thatcher’s in X-ray crystallography may have given them little feel for computer science or physics, any more than speaking one foreign language necessarily gives you privileged access to another one.


The result is that even the best politicians are often in effect ‘structurally incompetent’. I remember, for example, the challenges faced by my one-time boss Tony Blair. He was well intentioned; instinctively pro-science and pro-technology; and knew he should be engaged. But he simply lacked the experience to know what good looked like and it was easy for the charismatic bosses of big digital companies to take advantage of him.


I am convinced we need to take political training much more seriously and that no democracy can afford to ignore this issue (we should also, of course, do much more to help citizens understand how decisions are made and how they can exercise their power, but that's a topic for another day).



Continue on to read the whole article here and find out more about Geoff's ideal training curriculum for politicians.

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