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On being a good advisor

It was worrying to read Jonathan Calder’s “unsolicited advice” to Nick Clegg a while back. Apparently on a conference call regarding the CCDP Snoopers’ Charter there was a political advisor, of whom Jonathan says, “How shall I phrase this? – I am not wholly convinced that this person can be relied upon to offer Nick the best political advice on a consistent basis.”

Well, I don’t know who this advisor is or what advice they were giving. While fighting an election, I didn’t want to say anything (not that many people read my blog; it’s just good discipline). But if it is true as I suspect that this advisor had a role in the car crash weekend the Lib Dems suffered on the  CCDP (internet snooping programme), then I’ve some unsolicited advice on being a good advisor.

I’ve never been a spad, but I have been a technical consultant in sales and marketing for a decade or so at a decent level. By all accounts, the call was what used to be my bread and butter. Frankly, the Lib Dems seem like they could do with a bit of professionalism, so with those elections out the way here’s some tips as the CCDP debate continues:

First of all, when (as was clearly the case) you don’t really understand what’s going on, avoid lines like “current reports .. are complete nonsense”. Immediate credibility destroyer. Someone somewhere reduced Lynne Featherstone – a woman I admire tremendously – to just another condescending government mouthpiece. I hope she’s bloody furious about this.

Second, if you think you understand what’s going on just because you’re connected, just because you’re in the loop – you don’t really understand what’s going on. If you were to sit in on some leadership training, for instance, it will usually include some commentary on how difficult it is to get good information the higher up the chain you are. That is in part because many advisors feel it is their job to shield the leader from the facts, rather than ensure that the essential information gets through.

Developing an instinct for which small details have a big impact is very handy indeed. Sometimes a “simple update” simply isn’t that simple.

Third, for god’s sake be prepared. We had a conference at which a policy amendment was passed on this very subject. The leader can’t be expected to pay attention to all the detail of what is passed, but his group of advisors can be and has to be. The voting public expects a party leader to be familiar with the party’s most recent policy decisions. No excuses.

(Actually, one excuse, that needs to be done away with. The conference agendas do not come with sufficient supporting information to really understand a policy and its implications unless you’re already an expert. That’s really not a healthy thing.)

Fourth, know where to go to get information when a crisis occurs. On this point, possibly the most fundamental point, it may be a problem of party structure rather than an individual failure. The Lib Dem’s open approach to forming policy means that key decisions are being driven by people outside of the inner circle, which is admittedly unusual.

That said, being an advisor to a Deputy Prime Minister – or any other minister in the UK’s first coalition government in a long time indeed – isn’t a typical job either. Unusual is what you’ve signed up for. So figure out how to reach out to the people who know what they’re talking about before shooting our elected representatives in the foot, in public. If you can’t, find someone who can. Otherwise the Lib Dems are fated never to be an effective coalition partner.

The amendment the party passed in Newcastle was filtered through quite a few experts – Jenny Woods did a fantastic job of speaking to a wide range of views. In all, there was at least a few decades of combined communications expertise that gave it the once over. All of this happened weeks before the advisers were caught by surprise. To be blunt, I was pretty pissed off to see that effectively dismissed with the line, “The proposals being considered would simply update the current rules”. Were it not quite so tragic, it would be funny that on legislation related to communications and preventing emergencies , the advisers were unable to communicate effectively and thus created an emergency.

A final tip: in a crisis situation, don’t act as if the people concerned are panicking, don’t assume you know better than the subject matter experts, and start by asking genuine questions rather than rhetorical ones that assume the answer. Our leaders have to look slick on camera; their advisors do not in private discussions. So take a dose of humility, give people space to raise their concerns, and just sodding get the job done i.e. ensure your bosses are adequately informed instead of trying to make decisions on their behalf.

This post is admittedly rather speculative. Still, it’s based on a fair whack of experience; these are all mistakes I’ve made before at least a few times each. There were also several blog posts about that conference call, so the symptoms are all there. I’d bet a tenner I’m not too wide of the mark regarding some of the problems we’ve been experiencing in the rarified halls of Gt George St.

The thing is, just as a competitive market doesn’t give you a break, neither do the voters. At least, not to a junior coalition partner during a major economic slump. Everything seems to have been catching the party by surprise since May 2010. We have everything from a stalled recovery to a reputation for dismantling the NHS to two years of bad election results to make it clear we’ve not been doing a great job.

Hopefully the leadership can up their game and start getting ahead of the curve. It will be interesting to see how the Queen’s Speech goes. I doubt we have much goodwill left to be making amateur mistakes.

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