Monday 18 February 2019

Leo's less like Bertie, more like Zuckerberg

Varadkar is not your archetypal Taoiseach, but he would change if the data collated told him he should, writes Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

There was a fascinating story about Leo Varadkar in the Indo last Tuesday that kind of went under the radar. So Leo is doing some market research among his party members. He wants to understand them better, and see how they feel about things. They are, he tells them, "the heart and soul of our party, and, as someone who came up through the ranks, that is something I never forget".

Leo is reminding all those rank-and-file party members who overwhelmingly voted against him in the leadership contest that, contrary to appearances, he is just like them, just another ordinary Joe who came up through the ranks.

Leo wants to know how they think the party is performing in various areas, so there's a five-point scale from very poor to very well, for them to rate the Government's performance on everything from homelessness to Brexit.

They are also asked to rate priorities for the party in terms of how important they are. This covers things like whether the party should reduce USC as promised, or whether it should use the cash for more benefits for working families. Leo also wants to know if members feel the recovery is being felt throughout the country.

"The feedback initiative is part of a commitment I made to create a more open and inclusive party, one that actively seeks out the opinions of its members and takes them into account when developing and implementing government policy," Leo tells them, in a sentence that sounds as if it was written by three marketing experts, a lawyer and a word-generating robot.

When the 'data' has been collated and the analytics process applied, it will be fed back to the members, possibly even 'cascaded', as is the way of these things these days.

It would be easy to be smart-ass about this and suggest that real leaders, like Varadkar's predecessors in the job of Taoiseach, were not the kind of men who did market research to determine what they should be doing. These were men of vision, who looked into their hearts and knew instinctively what the people of Ireland wanted. These were people who led, rather than followed, who electrified their membership with big ideas. These were men who knew that people didn't know what they wanted until they were told what they wanted, told by a strong leader, who understood human nature, and had an instinctive understanding of electorates.

We still have a kind of chieftain paradigm when it comes to political leaders in Ireland. They are different to the rest of us, men set apart by destiny, men who are hoisted on the shoulders of their followers, but who don't listen to their followers. And interestingly, Leo is regarded as that type of leader to some extent. He got where he is not with the support of the ordinary members but with the votes of the top echelon of the party.

He is viewed as conducting government with a Blair-style sofa-cabinet approach. There's him and Paschal and Murph and a handful of other hand-picked people in the inner sanctum. Paschal is the brains of the operation, because he reads all the zeitgeisty economic and social self-help books to get the latest ideas hot off the presses. Murph is the muscle, who is running interference on the difficult housing issue and also makes Leo feel cool. And then Leo is the frontman, who does the socks and jogging stuff.

But to compare Leo with previous taoisigh is to misunderstand the situation entirely. While Leo is often compared with Bertie Ahern these days for his seemingly Teflon popularity, Leo is in fact not part of a lineage of taoisigh more than he is a creature of now. He is a new type of leader for a new world.

Obviously the use of data and analytics and questionnaires and focus groups is very now. Managers and leaders in all kinds of organisations are told all the time now that you can no longer rely on your gut, that you must look at the data. It's part of the reverse takeover of everything by the marketing discipline.

Of course you could equally argue that this trend to research everything and ask everyone before you do anything is just another excuse for guys not to have to make decisions anymore. Managers and leaders like Leo are terrified of making decisions these days. No one wants to excel at anything anymore, they are generally content to play it safe and not screw up. And the most common way of screwing up is by making a decision. So avoid decisions, and kick it into research and analytics.

In fact if you are looking for clues as to where Leo is coming from, you'd be better off looking at Mark Zuckerberg. At the same time we were hearing about Leo's market research, we were hearing that Mark Zuckerberg was holed up with all kinds of communications people in preparation for his appearance before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in Washington. One person characterised it as Zuck trying to learn to be a real boy before his grilling.

And you got a sense of that from Leo's questionnaire. Leo is trying to understand what real people, real FG people, with mud under their fingernails, think. He is still acutely conscious that these people overwhelmingly didn't want him as leader, so he wants some insight into who they are and what makes them tick and how can he make them like him. You can picture him on the sofa with Paschal and Murph: "What do these people want from me, guys? Who is Joe - and Josephine - Soap and what goes on in their minds? If I can figure that out, maybe I can do a better impersonation of one of them."

The sad thing about all this, about this obsession with marketing, marketing research, strategic communications and whatnot, is that Leo doesn't need to be like this. Before he became Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar was actually viewed by many as a reasonably authentic politician. And that, in fact, is what people want, not some guy programmed by data to say the things that will appeal to the greatest percentage of voters.

Sure, it was frustrating at times when Leo appeared to throw up his hands and say how shocking the health system was, and something should be done about it - while he was Minister for Health. But there was always some sense that whether through naivete or integrity, Leo Varadkar was less of a bullsh***er than some politicians.

There was also a sense that he was about something, something that wasn't calculated to please Twitter and The Irish Times. He was one of the few politicians who unashamedly spoke up for the middle classes from whence he came. It was not a message that was always going to go down well in a focus group, but he said it anyway.

It's a shame if that Leo is gone, having been swallowed up by the marketing parasites that attach themselves to everything these days.

Leo seemed like a man who wanted to get to the top because he had certain ideas about how things should be done. Is his main concern now just to stay at the top, by pleasing as many of the people as much of the time as he can?

Maybe that's the problem with politics. As soon as you get into a position where you get the power to do anything with conviction, you are already auditioning for the next election.

And elections, we are told now, are nothing more than a data analytics game, so parties need to aim for what the AI people call a "human out of the loop" strategy.

Sunday Independent

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