The Political Economy of Political Jobs

This one’s for you aspiring staffers. Since October 19, I have had too many emails, calls and meetings with smart people (some are former students) who are uncertain and anxious about employment prospects in the new Parliament and/or new federal government. It’s like watching employees in a one-industry small town react to news that the once boarded-up packing plant may reopen and hire local workers. It’s a mix of giddy hope burdened with a sense of urgency at not wanting to miss out on a chance to work. For the aspiring workers, it is gut-wrenching. Even more so when the labour force is largely young, highly educated and hoping to just gain a full-time job with a decent salary and maybe some benefits.

As far as I can tell, the political economy of political jobs in Canada has always been fraught. This is no less true today and perhaps more so with a massive turnover of government and the Commons.

At last count, I am told there have been some 20,000 applications to join Liberal offices, most collected through the broadcast call for online applications. In the Conservative and NDP camps, there are likewise far more available workers than there are paid positions in their (now much-reduced) political offices.

For leaders on all sides faced with this over-supply, a first, and pressing question, is how to select and allocate abundant labour resources. I do not envy those at the centre of these decisions.

All parties, whether in government or in opposition, will exercise some form of central monopolistic planning for key staff positions and terribly imperfect competition for others. Both the buyers and sellers in this labour market have imperfect information on what labour is truly needed and what labour is actually available. Worse, all parties are operating under tight time constraints: The House resumes this week (tick tock!) and demands for productivity after an election only go upward from the public, from media (tick tock!), from domestic and international stakeholders, from the machinery of the policy process itself, but also from self-imposed deadlines (tick tock!). Each MP and Minister must hope that the aims of the central planners at least mostly align with their own self-interests.

But where they are able to work outside of the central planning exercises, MPs and Ministers also have to contend with resource allocations that may not be optimal. MPs’ budget are all subject to decisions of a Board of Internal Economy (yet to be reconstituted for the new Parliament). Once the BIE decides, there is precious little they can do, as individual employers, to change their budget constraint or choices between investing in labour versus capital.

Ministers’ office spending is likewise subject to allocations from Treasury Board (and, until amended, the choices of the old government stand). Depending on their relative stature in a Cabinet, an individual Minister has an imperfect ability to seek a change in those resource allocations in a closed market and neither can they (if they wanted to) trade staffing dollars with another office. Once upon at time, Ministers had to come before full Cabinet to ask for more money to hire staff. Now, they must petition the President of the Treasury Board and Prime Minister. Well, ok really, the Prime Minister.

The new government can, it is important to note, change the above rules if it so desired.

Not entirely unlike other skilled sectors, political job markets suffer from the effects of terrible labour market information: there is little consensus on the skills required (and sometimes loyalty can be mistaken as a proxy for skill in political jobs) and even less information on the jobs available. No wonder there is such anxiety among would-be candidates. They don’t know how many jobs the new plant will offer, what skills the new bosses want, or even which jobs are already filled and there isn’t much they can reasonably do to get good, reliable information.

The NDP’s quasi-union notwithstanding, there are also no real labour-side organizations to act as brokers for would-be political workers. Federal labour-standards for partisan, Parliamentary and ministerial employees are limited and these workers are regularly exempted from workplace health and safety or employment equity standards applied elsewhere.

A final piece worth noting in this market place is that there are big constraints on labour exit and entry imposed by third-party actors including the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner’s Office and Office of the Lobbying Commissioner. Since at least 2006, rules on outside activities and on post-employment options (for up to 5 years after leaving) have substantially changed the opportunities for mid-career professionals to serve in political jobs. Regrettably, too many political jobs now seem largely designed for the likes of Ryan Bingham in “Up in the Air”.

Here again, the new government could make major changes if it so desired.

This complex labour market will, at some point, reach an equilibrium. The weaker equilibrium is the point at which each available staff position has an employee hired to fill that title function. This is the point my students seem fear most – the day the music stops and those without a chair are asked to leave the game. The stronger equilibrium only comes about when the demand for labour reflects the actual needs of each individual Minister or MP employer (rather than the preferences of whichever central planning body is in charge) and the workers hired meet the real qualifications required for the job. Any game theorist will tell you, under the conditions I’ve described above, it’s virtually impossible for this flawed market to get to a good outcome without lots and lots of trial and error first. The work of recruiting, hiring and managing talented staff doesn’t end next month when the first big wave of staffing is done.

Which brings me to one important signal the Government did release to prospective political staffers: The newly updated advice for Ministers (“Open and Accountable Government”) prepared by officials on behalf of the Prime Minister and released on Friday. The text of that document on the role political staffers in Ministerial offices (as close as we have to an official statement on political labour demand or qualification) has changed incrementally since it was first made public in 2006. Each subsequent version has added more words, always to add new items or additional detail to the previous version. No prohibitions or admonishments are ever dropped and the document appears to be forever playing catch-up to whatever public service concerns are fresh from recent experience.

In the latest version, the guidelines are reinforced by a new standalone code of conduct for ministerial staffers (including certain staff in the Office of the Leader of the Official Opposition). It is hard to find fault with the reasonable direction provided by the new Code. Yet the new Code and updated ministerial guidelines aren’t enough, on their own, to bring more order to the chaos of this fraught labour market.

I think there are at least three more things the new government might do:

  • Fair treatment for the 20,000 volunteers: The open call for CVs is laudable as a way to break down some long-standing entry barriers into the market for political jobs. I take the exercise at face value and look forward to hearing more about which successful candidates were recruited through that portal, rather than more traditional means. But that call to action also demands transparency on how those 20,000 CVs are being handled. Every last person in that pool deserves a response, regardless of the decision. Their personal information and data likewise deserve careful and respectful handling. If the intent is to make staffing more merit than network-based, then it will be critical that candidates have access to information to understand the selection criteria that were applied and how their application was handled.
  • Foster a professional community that learns and takes ethics to heart: The changes to guidelines for ministerial staff and the new Code of conduct may or may not matter in the practice of political management once the government is up and running at full capacity. As paper tools, these risk being not much more than incremental but toothless rule-making. To give the guidelines and code life, they need a compliance mechanism. One route is through administrative means but those are costly and often inefficient. Better instead to generate a culture in which those guidelines become self-enforcing through community norms and positive peer pressure. That sense of community, where individuals internalize the shared ethics and standards of conduct, is very difficult to establish in the competitive environment of politics. Sometimes even Cabinet members, where solidarity is most strictly enforced, are not rowing in the same direction. So, central leaders need to do things to foster and keep a strong sense of community. Party membership is a poor substitute. Instead, look at investing in ongoing and shared training to build the skills and collegiality of the political workforce. That learning can also be used to keep bravado in check, to encourage and support mobility of workers and to facilitate mentorship for younger employees. The political workforce needs to stay mission-driven on the right mission –not focussed on petty partisan wins but on service to Canadians over the next four years to retain their trust and respect.
  • Entry and exit rules that recognize the legitimacy of political work: Finally, it’s time to take a fresh look at entry and exit rules for political staffers. If political jobs are valuable ways of contributing to the governance of our country, and some 20,000 Canadians seem to believe they are, then the rules on conflict of interest and post-employment should reflect that principle. Private sector and public service employers are trying to promote, instead of hinder, a more flexible and responsive skilled workforce, and so too should political employers. Here’s one place to start: for decades, governments and opposition parties recognized that a transition into the public service was a valid option for experienced staffers. In fact some of our top public servants in Canada entered the civil service that way. If we want political staff to behave as professional, ethical advisors to our elected officials, we have to treat them that way.




Disclaimer: Further to some media reports, I can confirm that I had been offered a senior staff position in the new federal government. While I am very honored to have been approached, I have decided to remain at Carleton University where I’ll continue to research and teach public policy and political management.

Photo: Drop of Light /

Jennifer Robson
Jennifer Robson is an associate professor in the Riddell Graduate Program in Political Management at Carleton University in Ottawa. Prior to joining Carleton, she worked in the voluntary sector, and in government as a political advisor and, later, as a public servant. Twitter @JenniferRobson8

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