Public policy and democratic governance are powerful tools to improve life in the U.K. – to transform children’s life chances through education; to support our most vulnerable through health care and social protection; to make everyday life that bit simpler, whether by guaranteeing the quality of water we drink or making it easier for local businesses to thrive and support local economies. All of these things are influenced by legislation passed in Parliament; by regulations written in Whitehall; or by strategies written in or implemented by government Departments.
But policies are not made in a vacuum – they are made by real people. For democracy to function healthily and for all people across the United Kingdom to prosper, we need skilled, knowledgeable and effective public servants who are capable of and competent in governing.
Because governing is challenging, requiring complex decision making, a cool head in crises, strategic thinking and pragmatic/intelligent compromise. These challenges have been brought into stark focus in 2022: our national and local governments have had to navigate the tail end of a global health emergency; manage a cost of living crisis; respond to an aggressive and illegal invasion of Ukraine whilst tackling the existential and enduring threat of climate change.
The problem is that our current process for selecting those who will govern us in this country does nothing to guarantee their competence in any of their governing capabilities. Or put another way – the skills that get you elected are not necessarily the skills you need once you’ve gotten elected. And that’s a problem.
For example – whilst getting elected requires a great deal of door knocking, social media, hustings and leafleting, actually being elected and being an MP means constituency casework (and correspondence), running your own office (and budget) and the ensuing HR and management; learning the expenses policy and Parliamentary Code of Conduct (which has specific restrictions and requirements on your personal and business activity whilst you are in office). Those two sets of skills are not the same. And whilst it’s exciting that now more than ever we have individuals turning to politics after a career in another industry – law, banking, medicine, voluntary work – success in one field does not guarantee success in another. In this case, being a successful vet or a great postie don’t mean you know how to behave within the parameters set for you by Parliament (or that you even know what they are); it doesn’t mean you know how to respond to a national emergency and it doesn’t mean you know how to scrutinise a fiscal event or piece of legislation; or solve that tricky casework. Getting elected does not prepare you on how to govern.
I learnt this personally – as a former civil servant, I was regularly called to induct an ever revolving group of new MPs who had curried their party’s favour and were recently appointed as Ministers or Secretaries of State. They were well intentioned, highly intelligent individuals – but frequently they were simply unprepared for the task that lay ahead of them.
But don’t take my word for it – this year we had 3 Prime Ministers in 3 months; a former Party Leader who had the whip suspended for anti-Semitism; 56 MPs are under investigation for sexual misconduct (Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme; reported on in the Times, April 2022). In the latest OECD census, only one third of U.K. respondents reported trusting the U.K. Government (source:
https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/bulletins/trustingovernmentuk/2022#trust-in-government) – lower than the OECD average. I don’t profess that this lack of trust is a new thing (even though many news outlets will claim this year’s sleaze allegations have been unprecedentedly high.) This problem is entirely apolitical – whilst there may be variation within parties, this problem is deeper. I am pointing to a structural and systemic issue that that we do not adequately prepare our elected politicians with the skills, knowledge and capabilities they will need to be effective in their role. There is no other role in the world of similar importance to people’s lives – pilots, surgeons, social workers – where we would accept that being selected by a group and elected by popular demand would automatically infer upon them the nuanced competencies and capabilities they would need to be successful in that highly specialised job.
But what if we could change that?
Competencies and capabilities are learnt. As a behavioural scientist, I know that we are most likely to adopt new habits or absorb new information at a ‘turning point’ – a moment of change in our life. What if, as Prospective Parliamentary Candidates (PPCs) are preparing to take their roles as MPs, we could equip them with the skills, knowledge and time for reflection for them to prepare themselves for the job ahead of them?
That’s why I think the U.K. government should introduce the Young Parliamentarians Programme. It would be a six month programme to offered to all new (eg not incumbent) PPCs under the age of 35 covering, for example:
– the Nolan Principles – what are they and what do they mean to you?
– representational democracy – your responsibilities and opportunities
– a day in the life of an MP – what to expect and how to prepare for it
– deep dive: policy making and use of evidence;
– deep dive: decision making and compromise;
– deep dive: HR, leadership and management;
– deep dive: crisis management.
Your first question may be – doesn’t the House of Commons already provide this? True, the HoC provides induction for all new MPs – but this is cursory and mostly to do with IT, security and building access. It does not cover anything about what it’s actually like to be an MP itself.
Second question: why only new PPCs under the age of 35? Well, young people early in their careers tend to be more receptive to learning and development as part of their role, making this the best value for money and high impact option.
In addition, by better equipping young PPCs I believe we would be more likely to get more young MPs and therefore tackle the huge under representation of young voices in elected politics (presently only 3% of MPs are aged 18-29, despite nearly one fifth of the U.K. population being aged 18-30). This proposal therefore has the potential to increase the diversity of elected politicians (in a totally non-partisan way) as well as enhancing young people’s representation in decision making. It’s also a completely unique project – as a well established individual in the youth sector, I’ve noted currently there are lots of organisations aiming to increase the attraction of talent into public service (eg Civic Future, Patchwork Foundation) or to increase young people’s turnout to vote / engage in democracy (British Youth Council, MyLifeMySay). But no one is yet trying to work to ensure more young people become elected representatives, whilst also improving the health of our democracy by ensuring all individuals within our Parliament have the competencies they need to discharge their duties.
Third question: why PPCs? Well, mostly because once people become MPs their lives are instantly turned upside down and they are in a rush to get to Westminster and get started. People won’t take time out to do this training. Instead, they’ll start trying to solve the same wretched admin / logistical issues as their predecessors, wasting valuable time on things they could have explored or been taught in advance. So preparation must start ahead of election day. True, not all of them will be elected. But to have been selected by your party in the first place means you’re influential and thus regardless of electoral success we will still create a cross party cohort of change makers who understand and accept the solemn responsibility of governance.
Last question: so what? Why would this make anyone’s life better? Imagine if all new MPs had proper training before they arrived in Westminster on Day 1, on how to set up and run their Parliamentary and constituency offices; toolkits to help them determine their objectives for their first 100 days in office; frameworks they can apply to help them make decisions, or assess evidence. Imagine the collective brainpower that would be freed up to solve the biggest social, economic, environmental, security problems of our day! Imagine the innovation, new ideas and development that could be wrought simply by ensuring that all new folks in Parliament had the proper preparation.
I have personally seen this in action, in a project I recently Co-founded and delivered training young negotiators for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. I witnessed the transformative effect of having a well-prepared cohort of young diplomats taking their seats at decision making tables. Together, they found new solutions to age old problems and forged consensus and ambitious action based on compromise and hard work. Having seen how powerful that was on an international level, I’m confident that offering a similar package of support for young Parliamentarians would also transform our democracy and improve life in the U.K.