Performance management for politicians?

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In the mid 1970s I worked as an economist in the coal industry and lived in North Islington.   I was an active member of the local Labour Party where our local MP was under attack from a broad coalition of left-of-centre activists. I found their tactics thoroughly distasteful but was well aware of the deficiencies of the MP: in my view Michael O’Halloran was a decent fellow but simply lacked the skills to be an effective Parliamentarian.

At the height of the campaign against O’Halloran I went to see the Labour Party Regional Organiser, John Hills, to seek his advice. His counsel was both wise and straightforward. What we should do, he said, is to agree on the areas where O’Halloran was deficient, give him every opportunity to improve, and support him in the process. Only after this had failed should there be a move to deselect. Of course, as this was the Labour Party, none of this took place. The campaign became ever more aggressive and meetings more unpleasant. Eventually, in 1981, O’Halloran defected to the newly formed SDP and Jeremy Corbyn succeeded him to become our MP.

What John Hills said was fundamentally correct; it was the ethical and professional way to approach a very difficult, possibly intractable, problem.

Some years later, as my career developed, I moved into human resources – first as a practitioner in organisations and subsequently as a writer and lecturer. I learned that what John Hills was describing was performance management: the process whereby an employee undergoes a discussion on their strengths and weaknesses, is set objectives, and is offered support. The formal meeting, the performance appraisal, has now become almost universal for employers beyond the very smallest. In my view it has been the most positive development in human resource management in the last four decades. I spent many hours as a consultant or lecturer outlining the principles or teaching people how to undertake the annual interview to best effect.

The model I used was based on three ‘Cs’: commitment, compliance and consequences. Changes in behaviour are most likely to work when the individual recognises the problem and is willing to do something about it – so securing commitment is the desirable first step. If that doesn’t work compliance involves imposing a solution and the final step, consequences, involves telling the individual the potentially serious implications of continued under-performance.

One of the few areas of employment untouched by performance management is politics A legitimate criticism of our system is that increasing numbers of our MPs, certainly on the Labour side, have no working experience outside politics: they were aides or researchers before entering the House of Commons. No-one has ever sat them down and given them the ‘support and challenge’ that underpins an agenda for performance improvement.

I am sure that this is the case with Jeremy Corbyn. He has the capacity to excite and enthuse and has real skills in handling large crowds. However it is evident that he cannot manage his own office, achieve change, or inspire loyalty in those who work closely with him. He is a very poor team player.

The most effective approach in performance appraisal is based on open-ended questions. The appraiser would say to Jeremy Corbyn ‘Your ability to draw crowds of 5000 and your social network following are most impressive achievements. What can you do to translate your evident abilities in this context to inspire greater understanding and support from those who work with you in the shadow Cabinet? How can you go about it? What help do you need?

Alas this is pure fantasy. Jeremy Corbyn appears to be in total denial of his deficiencies: everyone is to blame except himself. There is no prospect of commitment and we move straight to consequences – a deficient opposition leading to dire electoral prospects

5 thoughts on “Performance management for politicians?

  1. We NEED performance management for politicians. After we elect them, it anybody’s game!!!!! In the U.S.A., if you take the approval rating for our Congress, it is at an all time low of 8% – which would be a resounding “Failing’ grade in school and in a work setting, it would be a ‘1’ on a scale of 1-5 on a performance rating scale. How can government be allowed to get away with the public trust? And, we do we continue to reelect them?


  2. Is it not the case that “Performance management” implies someone is charged with giving you feedback (and helping you develop) in a kind if formalised way? But are politicians short of feedback? No! They get more than most of us – thanks to the electorate, polls and the media. Somebody like Corbyn is surely well aware of your third “C” Martyn, but he does not care – he completely lacks the first “C” – so “the consequences can be damned, I will not change”. The electorate will deliver their verdict. Sadly, for a similar case in America, we fear the electorate may not.


  3. As an American living in London for 9 years now, I have been consummately depressed by the behaviour of politicians in recent months in both countries. It was no surprise to see Boris Johnson playing with his phone during May’s speech at the UN, nor to read that Trump and Clinton are the least liked of any presidential candidates for decades. I have never thought to draw comparisons between politicians and the business world, because I think of them as a unique category of humans not motivated by or responsive to the same things as the rest of us mortals.


  4. I agree – Martyn, you have something here and Andrew is right. There is an absolute disregard for feedback; rather the thought that we will surely change our views if they continue unaffected by it. There is an underpinning issue here and I hear it every day – should you believe in something or just say what you think others want to hear in order to be ‘in charge’ – the motivation is detached from the purpose as there appears to be little purpose; just a consequential result. The criticism levied of lack of non political experience is, in part, relevant. If the only game you know is the game to govern then what value is the feedback of those not in that game. In a performance management scenario, what really matters? All very depressing really.


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