Wednesday 26 October 2016

Yes minister, you're at the top, but it's a long way down

Mind and meaning...

Patricia Casey

Published 17/05/2016 | 02:30

Alan Kelly. Photo: Irish Independent
Alan Kelly. Photo: Irish Independent

At last we have a new Government, and after 70 days in a political wilderness, the country learned last week that the Taoiseach has named his cabinet and then the junior ministers. These new appointees are composed of neophytes, who have never held office in the Dail before, others who have been backbench TDs now thrust into the limelight and seasoned politicians who have been in ministerial, or junior ministerial positions in previous governments.

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Some have been elevated from junior to senior posts while others have been shuffled sideways, indicating either promotion or demotion, dependeing on the status of the department.

So our new cabinet is a motley crew in terms of experience, short-term ambitions and political leanings. It is difficult to appreciate the stress of such a change, particularly for those new to high office.

Power is intoxicating, so said Alan Kelly, the Labour TD for Tipperary, in his now infamous interview in the Sunday Independent. He was pilloried for his honesty, but he was correct. The rush that power bestows is recognised by everybody, except the uber-innocent.

Even in non-political circles, holding a senior post and having authority is a powerful magnet that attracts a certain type of person. The addictive effect of substances comes from the dopamine surge in the brain. This reward neuro-hormone reinforces the addictive behaviour and it applies as much to power as to heroin and cocaine.

But power is also a lonely business, as any person in senior management will advise. Being at the top of your job means that all the problems, as well as successes, are your responsibility. There are few mentors, except those who have previously occupied the position and the most serious decisions are made by you and you alone.

With so many new and inexperienced politicians in our Cabinet the levels of stress experienced by them will be enormous. This is likely to reveal itself in tense and tetchy Cabinet meetings. These new incumbents have been given just over one week to bed into these new portfolios but adjusting to these involves more than just familiarisation with the policies in their departments. The new ministers have to learn how to approach decision-making, how to navigate the personalities and internal politics of their departments.

There is an assumption that because some of the appointees were previously good junior ministers or because they are articulate and intelligent that these attributes will equip them for their new ministerial roles. These are indeed useful, but the most important quality, as for anybody in a position of authority, is the ability to compromise so as to win people over.

Diktat is no friend of power as management consultants and advisors will tell us. Yet there is good evidence that newly appointed managers often become intoxicated by their success and attempt to manage from the top down. Ministers in government are no different.

Government ministers are a special case because, not only are they answerable to their departments and to Cabinet, but their professional life is conducted in a goldfish bowl with all their manoeuvres and machinations visible to a critical media and a cynical public.

They also have the daunting task of having to meet the expectations of their own constituents, who bestowed on them the honour of being their elected representatives.

Minsters are multitasking for their constituents, their departments and the Cabinet and they are answerable to each. Far from being 'a cosy number' as seen by some, compartmentalising one's work is daunting and immensely challenging.

As new ministers, ambitious power-driven incumbents might try to make dramatic changes in the early days of office, hoping to make a positive impression on the national mood and above all, on the Taoiseach. They are more likely to appear frantic especially as the time in which to do this may be foreshortened by an early election.

Ministers would be ill advised to be guided by this ambition which could go disasterously wrong, and doom any prospects of future advancement. The capacity for personal embarrassment and disappointment will be huge.

New ministers should turn to the older and more wily ex-ministers for guidance. Even retired politicians can mentor new members.

There will undoubtedly be newly appointed ministers and junior ministers already having fantasies about their future. The best motto is "festina lente" - "make haste slowly".

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