Leading from behind – a year of elections is almost over

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

Nikkei Weekly, October 29, 2012

This has been an unusually busy electoral year across the globe. And still two important power changes are yet to take place. In China, we think we know what leadership change will occur at the Communist Party’s 18th National Congress, which is expected to take place Nov. 9. In the U.S., pollsters think they know who will win on that country’s election day, Nov. 6.

In both instances we, the public, will not see the outcomes until after the event. The Chinese process is opaque, though rumors abound, while the U.S. approach sees the characteristics of each key candidate splashed across the media landscape at a cost of at least $1 billion. It is just that the two systems are so noticeably different that it opens up speculation about their methods.

What is clear, in all nations, is that the permanent staffs of government continue through all elections or leadership changes.

These are the obscure people who are rarely exposed to the media but whose daily task it is to advise the front-office guys – the elected leaders who represent their people nationally and internationally. In many developed nations the working population is about 50-60% of the total, and of this, between one-10th to a half percent work for the government as advisers in various capacities. The latter percentage varies considerably as the definition of civil servant varies, even across nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Herein Germany might have as many government workers as China, though in proportion to population.

What I am trying to say is that relatively few people act as a constraint against statements by politicians who may be fresh to their job. The officials are supposed to analyze data without political bias then inform their ministers. Often an objective report is analyzed by “close advisers” who create an appropriate political statement for ministerial consumption. It seems that it does not matter whether the government is formed by a democratic process, a hidden process or a military putsch; leaders will surround themselves by a bevy of unelected advisers – conveniently called “spin doctors” by the media. Generally I think that Machiavellian skill can achieve change far more easily than straight discourse.

It is particularly important for each community to uncover the secret advisers and make them accountable. Political tension across the globe is too high with real conflict taking place in many areas, and standoffs are also achieving media prominence. Spin doctors suggest, and their mouthpieces speak; the media respond and people become misinformed and inflamed. This heated state is worsened by politicians becoming enticed to join the social-media revolution. I have no issue with their tweeting, but as analysts say, “There is meaning in every word uttered and in those left unsaid.” Once incautious words are circulated and probably distorted (who can express complexity in less than 140 letters?) it becomes impossible for an official to instantly clean up the mess.

We must therefore be thankful for our hidden government servants.

Presently several European nations hope to govern austerely by reducing their civil servant numbers. This is dangerous; reduced staffing will not be able to complete effective data and policy analyses. In China, two million or so government officials strive to keep up with two sides of their task – to collect reliable data and to understand the nature of new policies received from the top tier of government. Perhaps it is advantageous everywhere to be a little slow in promoting change.

However, too slow an acceptance of change by the lower levels of officialdom will lead to conflict within the sophisticated modern globalized society. As always, balance is needed.

Therefore, we expect change to be slow in the U.S. and China. It will take several weeks for both nations to appoint their new official hierarchies, and then there is the holiday season of Christmas and Chinese New Year’s to be absorbed. My guess is that it will be some six months before significant policy change is seen. Meanwhile, we must rely on the permanent government officials to maintain the systems.

Frank-Jürgen Richter is founder and chairman of Horasis, which hosts annual meetings for entrepreneurs from emerging economies.