“Liberal democracies need political structures that are capable of governing”, argues Gisela Stuart from the Vote Leave campaign. Indeed, and therefore they should not come from political parties. Instead, they should be known for their talent to govern and elected by all members of parliament. Only then you have a structure capable of governing. Obviously, political parties are not structures designed to select those capable of governing. They are clubs of nepotism where either the power hungry or the most loyal are rewarded by its members with the privilege to execute the will of the party.
This is not democratic by far. A parliament is supposed to represent the diversity of the population and discuss rationally all possible courses for the country. The executive branche then follows up on this or first enriches the discussion. In the end, the ministers should be trusted by the parliament to govern according to their will, which is after all the representation of the will of the people.
Instead of selecting ministers from its own ranks the population should be asked to nominate capable and talented candidates based on the job description for each post in the cabinet the parliament collectively agrees upon. Similar to what ordinary civilians are subject to throughout their career. Should the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care have a formal training as medical doctor (like the first Minister of Health) or someone with a track record managing complex bureaucracies? Certainly not someone from the pharmaceutical industry.
Parliament has many details to work out for the perfect candidate for each post. Committees writing a collective document is nothing new and daily practice, a job description is a small task for them. Once they are published any citizen can send a confidential letter suggesting another citizen. The nominees that score the most points for each requirement are then visited for a surprise interview with a delegation of frontbenchers from parliament. Once asked, the talented candidate will recognise the call and will be able to answer questions on what to do in which situations with hesitation and with convincing precision.
After all, the talented leader and manager surfaces in practise, following the management course is not enough. Certainly a good education is required, but only in practise after a number of years you can see who leads with integrity and support from the people they work with.
A political structure with these people will be stable and capable. Most importantly, it will be a government of the people (through the nominations) by the people (their representation in parliament). Individual Cabinet members can be fired by a majority of parliament. If parliament is undecided about how to steer the country the Cabinet is not restrained by some party accidentally in majority. Actually, members of parliament can disagree freely within their party without any consequence for a stable government. A majority vote on an issue can cut through parties but still give a clear direction for the Cabinet. Now that would be democratic.
The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein persons of low ability suffer from illusory superiority, by mistakenly assessing their ability as greater than their actual capability.
More importantly in this context, and an important reason why we should select our leaders with a normal competence based vetting proces like a job application rather than elections, is that those who are compentent tend to underestimate their competence.
In a test performed with psychology students:
students of high ability tended to underestimate their relative competence. Roughly, participants who found tasks to be easy erroneously presumed that the tasks also must be easy for others; in other words, they assumed others were as competent as, if not more competent than, themselves.
And now think of what you a political candidate needs to do during a election campaign. Certainly not underestimate their competence! Luckily, political parties tend to preselect competent candidates and many political campaigns seem to be more about discussing the issues at hand rather than the competence of the candidate.
In a speech to class 2016 of Rutgers University Obama makes a case for professional politicians. He also does not distinguish between the executive and representative politicians, unfortunately. We can savely assume he meant the executive.
(…) it’s interesting that if we get sick, we actually want to make sure the doctors have gone to medical school, they know what they’re talking about. (Applause.) If we get on a plane, we say we really want a pilot to be able to pilot the plane. (Laughter.) And yet, in our public lives, we certainly think, “I don’t want somebody who’s done it before.”
As the head of the European Parliament Bureau in the Netherlands argued, national politics should see the European Parliament and how the government is formed as an example. Yes, but we still have a lot to wish for. Now that the elections in Europe are over and the European Parliament got the Commission president it wanted, there is one major objection. The parliament cannot send him away.
Next are the commisioners. Candidates come from the member states. Is this what the parliament wants? If not, then the parliament can block the entire European Commission. There will be a public hearing with the candidates the president selected from the candidates put forward by the member states. Parliament did not draw up a list with wishes for the positions. Few citizens can be candidate since member states make a pre selection. After the Commission is installed, we are stuck with them. Parliament can not send individual Commissioners away.
What should be improved?
Parliament should be able to replace the president if there is a majority in favour.
Each European citizen should be able to reply to the vacancy of Commisioner.
The vacancies for the Commissioner jobs should be written by the Parliament, not the member states.
Parliament should be able to replace individual Commissioners if there is a majority in favour.
Apart from obvious changes like the right for the parliament to take the initiative for legislation.
Let’s suppose you are an elected council member and you want to realise this. How to proceed? There is no procedure laid out for you, but at least in the Netherlands there are no formal obstacles. You do have to take the initiative though!
Write the job descriptions for the eldermen. This is good to do anyway, because anyone can then compare your dream candidate with what you will actually get. Also when a traditional coalition takes place with eldermen chosen in an untransparent way.
Publish the job descriptions online and send out a press release about it. The news story should be what we wish for in the eldermen and what we eventually get. Again, even when the traditional path is taken, the news story can be about how it compares to the profile for the candidate.
Ask the other parties to publish their own versions of the job descriptions. Also the parties involved in the coalition should have an answer to the question what their profile is. Opening up at this stage makes them more accountable. If they refuse to answer this when journalists ask about this will make them look secretive.
Once the profiles are published, they have to be merged into profiles acceptable to all. A perfect compromise in which only those requirements survive the majority of parties are in favour of.
Applicants to the vacancies should have their anonimity assured until the last moment. You could have them apply anonymously describing their job history in the most general terms. Attention seekers will claim publicly they have applied for the job, but make sure to not release any information about the applicants. Especially the good applicants might be damaged if their intention become public before they have an actual chance to get the job. The attention seekers meanwhile will fuel the discussion on which applicants are good, what the requirements are.
The coaltion partners are meanwhile negotiating behind closed doors, but with the alternative discussed publicly, the pressure on the outcome of this process increases. It might even become part of the negotiation. The weaker party has an alternative to being asked by the ‘winner’ of the elections. Together with the opposition they might form a coalition on this process. They loose the chance to propose their own eldermen in the coalition, but on the other hand others will not get their own either.
Once a majority of the council prefers this model to a traditional coalition the applicants are asked if they would like to reveal their identity. Possibly first only behind closed doors to representatives for each party in the council, but ultimately in a public hearing.
The public hearing should be as public as possible, preferably with live television or at least webcast. Questions for the applicants will be about which policy they think will find support from a majority, but also on their expert knowledge and how transparant they work. This is the moment to demonstrate their communication skills and openness in decision making.
There is a good opportunity to test the proposal of this blog for real after the next elections in Amsterdam. The 45 seats in the Council go to some 10 different parties. The biggest party is always de PvdA (social-democrats) with something between 12 and 20 seats. The next three biggest parties usually have some 6 to 10 seats. The other parties have a few or just one seat. This makes the PvdA the inevitable coalition leader. See the graphic below from Wikipedia or the historical data on the composition of the Council since 1962. In other words, the results are already known before the election. The question to be answered by the elections is: who will the PvdA make a coalition with?
Now, what if there are no coalitions and a majority of the council agrees to draft job descriptions for the 6 to 8 eldermen? Then the electorate of the four big parties can spread their votes freely over all the 10 (or more) parties. This improves the representation of the city and the grip of the big, inevitable PvdA on the city politics will disappear.
The six, seven or eight eldermen on the other hand then have to please the majority of the 45 seat Council. They can not count on their coalition majority, but also have to listen carefully to the wishes of the smaller parties. At the same time, the eldermen will strive for consistency of their policy and will strive to stay within their budget. Not any wish can be granted, good and informative debates about the issues themselves are required.
In order to prevent a coalition to form I have joined one of those second-biggest parties: D66. I will plea to not form a coalition with PvdA and call for the rest of the Council to not support a coalition to be formed. The list of D66 candidates for the election D66 will be 30. I am placed at position 44. Members of the party can vote me up in an internal procedure until September 19. If I make it on the ballot then I need a few thousand individual votes in the elections to get in the Council. Only with the help of (national) mainstream live television talkshows this is feasible.
A reason to not run for public office is the damage this may cause for your reputation. You might not ever get a job in the private sector again. Damaged goods.
This also works in other ways I noticed when a befriended journalist joined the elections for a new candidate for a new mayor of Paris inside the party of the Greens. One of his employers called him with the announcement that his contract has ended because of this. You are not supposed to engage in politics as a journalist. The fact that only three party members voted for him did not matter. From a party that only makes a chance when the others leave the race.
If you lose your current job in the private sector simply because you show an interest in running for public office as Elder or minister, this means a large reservoir of good candidates are now excluded.
For this reason the selection of governors should get an adapted procedure. Once they do not come from political parties and apply to the job opening, this selection procedure should protect their anonimity. Applicants should be able to indicate nobody should know about their intention until the last selection round is reached. Only then the identities are revelead from the candidates who chose to remain anonymous. Just before this happens they get the choice to revoke their candidacy. For example because they carefully studied the anonimised profiles of competing applicants. Or they can ask the selection committee to have another candidate contact them to establish among each other who is likely to be the best candidate and who should step back.
During the opening of the new academic year the ‘rector magnificus’ of the University of Groningen, Elmer Sterken, made a remark about politicians. NRC Handelsblad quotes him (7 September 2012) with: “Because of the terms of their service in office politicians are ‘blind’ for arguments relating to the long term.”
Now, if our governors are no longer politicians but appointed by politicians, they can outlive their parliament. After all, if they do well, they do not have to step down after elections. They can just continue as long as parliament trusts them to do their job well.