Parties should not run themselves like businesses

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‘We make it harder to solve problems because we ignore the politics that decides whether solutions will work’

MOST voters would surely want political leaders who excel at politics — not those who pretend they are running a business. Someone should tell this to our largest political parties.

The African National Congress (ANC) and Democratic Alliance (DA) seem convinced that the best way to appoint people to posts is by imitating personnel agencies.

The ANC is reportedly asking people who want to join the team that will temporarily run the ANC Youth League to submit their CVs for consideration. But the DA seems to be ahead of the curve here — a contact who hopes to become one of its MPs reports that hopefuls must submit their CVs to the relevant party structure.

Asking people who want to be MPs or youth leaders to submit CVs seems out of kilter with democratic politics. Employers’ selection processes are meant to find the best person for the job by identifying whether they have the qualifications it requires. But in politics, formal qualifications are meaningless — a professor can make a poor leader, a person who never finished school a good one. No one can agree on what they want leaders to do, let alone what qualities they ought to have.

If there were clear qualifications for political office, we would not need democracy: a committee of experts could decide who should hold office. But, because there is no agreement on what qualities are needed, the only way to decide is to allow everyone an equal say in who holds office. The best party representative is not one who submits the most impressive CV but the one who is supported by most people in the party.

Politics, not technical qualifications, decides who leads. Because there are no clear standards for selection, allowing a committee to decide on the strength of CVs allows some people to impose their standards on all.

The ANC and DA may respond that asking for CVs is simply a way of checking that people who want to hold office are fit to be considered and that they do choose their officeholders democratically. But who decides who is fit and on what basis? Isn’t that the job of voters? Why choose this method if not to send the message that choosing leaders is not about politics but a technical process like those used by employers? Why care about this?

Because it is a symptom of a widespread mind-set, which is undermining democracy — the belief that the government should operate like a business and that political problems are really technical questions.

This is another of those myths that unite the government and its critics: the present debate on how to improve the public service, for example, assumes that the answer is to remove politics from the equation and to implement better management methods.

But the government cannot function like a business because there are important differences between them. Businesses can decide who they want to trade with and who to employ — a business that trades with everyone is a monopoly and, in most countries, illegal.

Governments, by contrast, have to govern everyone.

 And so businesses have a leeway that the government lacks. They can decide not to trade with some people or employ others — the government cannot. It must deal with the poor, even if they can’t pay for services, and with all interest groups, including those that don’t like it. And so the government is more about building relationships than technical ability. CVs don’t say how good people are at building relationships; elections do.

When we insist that the government runs like a business, we make it likely that many citizens will be ignored and that what some want will be presented as what everyone needs. We also make it harder to solve problems because we ignore the politics that decides whether solutions will work.

On technical grounds, e-tolling freeways may make sense. But if the interest groups that don’t like it are ignored, the solution will be resisted and may be blocked.

Insisting that the government should simply implement the “right” solutions ignores the reality that even “experts” cannot agree on what those are. Would those who want the government to simply get on with growing the economy be happy if its “experts” decided that the way to go was to double taxes?

Government and politics, which serves us, all need open processes in which everyone affected has a say and the majority view prevails. That applies to political parties as well as the government. And so, when our two biggest parties feel a need to show that they are behaving like recruitment agencies, we will get not better leaders or candidates, but more power for small groups to impose their preferences.

Healthy political parties — and democratic governments — do not try to imitate businesses. They get better at allowing everyone a say and acting on what most people want. Parties and our system of government will grow stronger if they take seriously everyone’s right to choose. Wanting to be businesses makes that task far harder.

By: Steven Friedman  

Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.

Source: Business Day