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Tag: staffing

On staffing

My War Room Staff Badge from the 2019 Federal Election Campaign

On occasion, I’m asked, “How did you get involved in politics?” or “How does one get a job in politics?”

In Canada, the process is relatively straightforward:

  1. Pick the party with which you are most closely aligned.
  2. Get involved with a local association or campaign.
  3. Volunteer enough to build a positive reputation.
  4. Indicate to either the candidate or the campaign manager that you would like a job.
  5. Apply for jobs as they become available.

Political parties and caucuses will advertise openings openly through their websites for entry-level positions. The other option is applying through a party’s internship program (typically, these run once a year).

The criteria for applying for one of these positions are not terribly stringent. In most cases, it requires some post-secondary education and a social media scan (i.e., don’t post anything cringe), but I have certainly known a fair few staffers that lacked the former and were instead simply dedicated, longer-term volunteers.

When I served as a staffer, I was uniquely privileged in that the contracts that I signed were limited-term, and I did not have any genuine desire to continue staffing on their expiry. As a result, I had a degree of freedom to make some observations, (and perhaps some lessons learned), that I hope that the reader will find interesting.

These observations and suggestions are based on my own subjective experiences and the combined experiences of dozens of individuals that I’ve spoken to over the course of my 6+ years of active political involvement from conservative, liberal, and social democratic parties — they do not refer to any specific party, individual, or incident.

In short, the political career of any given junior staffer evokes Hobbes’ state of nature: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

In other words, staffing involves long hours, poor compensation, the nastiness and brutality commonly attached to partisan politics — not to mention the vulnerability to burnout.

I certainly was no special exception to this — my time staffing had a terrible impact on my personal relationships with a secondary effect on my mental health. But given that my staffing career was contemporaneous with my legal education, (and it was always my intent to return to the private sector), I certainly was not a textbook staffer.

The ideal junior staffer, in my view, is fresh out of university and unattached. The work environment is certainly not conducive to anything else. In the lead-up to the 2019 federal campaign in Ottawa, my workdays were typically 12 hours long, and I would typically get one free weekend off a month. In hindsight, I should have fought for more weekends and regular hours, but I have no regrets about taking the positions themselves.

There are many reasons why one may consider staffing: it is an excellent opportunity to network, the proximity to power, a desire to shape public policy — but at the end of the day, a staffer becomes a staffer because they believe in the “movement.” A staffer will tolerate poor working conditions more than an ordinary employee because, at some level, they believe that what they’re doing is for the good of the party, and by extension, moving the country or province closer to their own idealized worldview.

This tolerance, however, is not unlimited or unconditional. I have seen and spoken to several talented staffers who leave politics altogether — they felt their efforts were underappreciated, saw no opportunities for advancement, or in extreme cases, were placed into deeply uncomfortable or problematic positions where they no longer felt safe in their workplace. All three of these factors contribute to turnover and poor morale. Turnover and poor morale, in turn, results in a staff corps that is lazy and inexperienced. Laziness and inexperience inevitably lead to poor political outcomes when mistakes become public.

The former two criteria are tied together fairly closely: generally speaking, feedback is only provided to those who ask for it (and, of course, when an obvious mistake is made), and it is not formalized on any rubric. No one is told why a particular individual is promoted, and there are no obvious pathways to obtaining a promotion. For a young adult wishing to obtain a degree of security before settling down, politics is scarcely the place to do it.

The latter factor is a more complicated problem. It is disconcerting because there is not a readily apparent solution. HR departments in the private sector get a bad rap because “they work for the company, not for you.” The problem is far more acute in the political sphere: no MP, MLA, MPP, or candidate will get publicly canned or reprimanded less the party invites a self-inflicted political scandal upon themselves. More likely, one would see quiet shuffles or reassignments — that too, only if there is an obvious person to hear the complaints, and typically there is not.

The biggest strength that a political staffer has over a private-sector worker, from the point of view of their employer, is their loyalty. A private sector employee has no loyalty to a specific employer. If an employee is offered a better compensation package by a direct competitor, ceteris paribus, that employee will typically switch jobs. On the other hand, a staffer may burn out or leave politics, but they are exceedingly unlikely to defect to the other side, even when subject to poor working conditions. Loyalty to the party and the movement should be developed and encouraged in staffers at every opportunity. The best way to do this is by building trust between senior and junior staff. One suggestion I would offer is to explain to junior staffers the reasons for pursuing a specific course of action or the meaning of their work and how it fits into the bigger picture. If these courses of action can be shown as being for the “good of the party,” one will find that staffers are far more willing to toe the line and perform even in the face of negative coverage in the mainstream media, by the opposition, and on social media.

The best thing senior staff can do to develop good employees is by making an effort to identify and communicate what they believe to be the strengths and weaknesses of their junior counterparts. Junior staffers will then more easily understand where their opportunities for growth lie and make necessary adjustments to be more effective in their role in the hopes of being rewarded either via raise or promotion in the future. As it stands now, even though senior staff may have a systematic approach for assigning certain roles to certain individuals, the process for promotions and raises appears arbitrary, and the appearance of arbitrariness leads to reduced morale among staffers.

On the other hand, there appears to be a level of latent disrespect or arrogance among certain staffers towards the elected officials they work with. Staffers should note that elected officials have staff because they have a multitude of responsibilities inside and outside of the chamber as well as in their constituencies, committees, and not to mention their personal lives. The staffer class is not exceptionally diverse — most staff come from educated, upper-middle-class, urban backgrounds. As such, some may be inclined to think that they “know better” than an elected official simply because they have developed a subject matter expertise on a particular topic and are frustrated with their member for taking some stance or the other. This problem is particularly acute in parties where the demographics of a particular caucus are in stark contrast to the demographics of the staffer corps. While it is true that staffers will be less inclined to work for those that they do not respect, from the point of view of a caucus or a government, one must work with the elected officials that were elected. A possible solution to this problem is parties should consider hiring staffers who reflect the demographics of the riding a particular member represents. In theory, this should result in that member being more effectively supported in their day-to-day roles. How this may be put into practice depends on the organization of the party — the hiring process should involve both the elected member and senior staffers to ensure that personalities will not clash and ensure that a staffer will act in the party’s best interests.

One other thing that would serve the staffer well to keep in mind is that ultimately while their paycheque comes from taxpayers between elections, their jobs do not exist if their members are not re-elected. It is the responsibility of their members to win re-election, and the member (as the representative of a given electoral district), is the person best positioned to know what it would take to win re-election in that district.

With the hope that I am not coming off as overly banal or trite, the above concerns that I raise are all due to a breakdown in communication between senior and junior staff and elected officials. The lack of communication does not foster a culture of trust, and without trust, all are less effective at their jobs. Politicians and staff would be well served by ensuring that they can communicate freely and openly in their offices. This would make the party, and in turn the government, more effective.