If you want to be a doctor, lawyer, teacher, nurse, firefighter, entrepreneur, soldier, accountant, or engineer there are schools that provide the knowledge and skills necessary to serve in these professions. But if you want to go into politics, no practical training is necessary. None is available.
This is puzzling. Why do we turn over the management of the biggest and most complex enterprises in our society—municipal, provincial, and federal governments—to amateurs?
Candidates increasingly refer to elections as “job interviews.” But a study by Samara found that few politicians could offer a coherent description for the work they do.
We think it is time for politicians to raise their game. This year, UBC’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions will run its third annual Summer Institute for Future Legislators. It is a program that draws on the expertise of wise former leaders to provide aspiring politicos with the knowledge and skills they need to be better practitioners. We call it “boot camp for politicians.”
Our political wannabes learn about parliamentary practices and procedures, lawmaking and representation, relationships and ethics. They have the chance to hone their skills through role playing and simulations. The highlight is a model parliament session conducted in the BC legislature. Having practiced the art of the legislator, they have personal knowledge of the job they seek.
Some past participants have decided that the political life is not for them. It is better to realize this before entering politics. Others have seen how hard politics is and have become even more enthusiastic about the challenge.
Is it elitist to train people for politics? On the contrary, our goal is to admit anyone who is interested, regardless of their background or qualifications. The only criteria for admission is that applicants must have a desire for public service in elective office.
Our main challenge is how to teach people to be good politicians. It is true that politics is learned on the job. As a practical skill, it requires trial and error. Since there are harsh penalties for making mistakes in public life—just ask Mike Duffy or Pamela Wallin—it may be wise to hone the practice of politics in an environment in which experimentation is possible.
When aspiring politicians are given a context for learning experientially, among peers, and with inspiring mentors drawn from across the partisan spectrum, they can explore different styles and approaches.
They can replicate existing practices—falling back on party discipline, reading from talking points, and refusing to answer questions—or they can explore ways of working across partisan lines, building coalitions, and fostering meaningful dialogue.
They can change the rules to enable more free votes. They can run question period differently. They can experiment with the confidence convention. In short, they have a chance to think about what parliament was designed to do, and to imagine how it might work in the future.
We want our practitioners to imagine models of what democracy could be, not copy what it is. Better politicians means a better democracy. If we want to change politics, we have to change the practice. And to change the practice, we have to improve the practitioners.