Inside the Political Mind: The Human Side of Politics and How It Shapes Development

GPG Founder and Board Chair, Greg Power, explains the central arguments in his new book.

A few years ago I was in conversation with an MP from Nepal about the challenges he faced locally in trying to improve the lives of his constituents.

“What sort of things do they need?” I asked.
“I once bought someone a cow,” he replied flatly.
“Why did you buy him a cow?” was my obvious next question.
He eyed me levelly. “Because he needed a cow,” he said.

In countries where the state is not working effectively, conversations with MPs will often take you to places that seem surprising to outsiders.

Discussions with hundreds of politicians over nearly twenty years of GPG’s work have however produced a familiar pattern. MPs will often speak at length about the size and variety of their voters’ expectations in dealing with employment education, health, water and electricity through to marital disputes, tax advice and trouble with the law. The lives of politicians are intertwined with those of their voters. And their voters expect them to do something about their problems immediately – so they end up providing jobs, giving them money, pulling some strings, or offering them gifts. Or buying them the occasional cow.

Very little of this sort of activity is to be found in the formal descriptions of the MP’s role in political science books, institutional procedure or a country’s constitution. And, viewed from the outside it can look odd, anomalous and possibly corrupt. For lack of study it is regularly dismissed as a sign of dysfunction in the political system: as evidence of MPs simply trying to buy favour with their voters.

The truth is far more nuanced than this. The behaviour of politicians in such contexts is rarely for the reasons that outsiders assume. They are the product of MPs trying to make sense of the conditions that they find themselves in, often characterised by weak political institutions, voters in desperate need of help, social norms that oblige MPs to respond directly to such public expectations and highly informal political cultures.

The patterns of behaviour listed above are not a sign of deviance, but rather of conformity – they reflect a tight and compelling logic, held together by both the public and their MPs.

In the first place, where directly-elected parliaments are only a few decades into existence, the role of the MP will lean heavily on existing cultural ideas about leadership, authority and representation that predate the arrival of the new institutions. The traditional role of the leader would have revolved around providing for and protecting their people. There is little reason why these norms should disappear simply because the country’s institutions have changed shape.

However, a circular and self-defeating logic can set in. Local MPs can only ameliorate and provide short-term relief to such issues. Lasting solutions depend on more effective state provision. But MPs’  focus on providing temporary respite detracts them from efforts to make their institutions stronger.    .

The incentives often point them away from the institution rather than towards it. Where the state is weak, MPs need to develop skills which compensate for its weaknesses. Their ability to do the job will depend on finding daily workarounds and shortcuts. Politicians become adept at operating within their specific context and get good at going around the formal processes. In turn, voters come to prize these characteristics in their politicians, and elections are fought between candidates as to who is most capable of finding inventive and entrepreneurial fixes.

MPs therefore end up playing a hybrid role – one which involves simultaneously trying to make highly formal political institutions work, but within the norms of a highly informal political culture.

It creates what political scientist Barbara Geddes has called the “politician’s dilemma”. MPs might recognise the need for stronger institutions, but they also know that their own political survival depends on prioritising voters’ immediate concerns at the expense of those longer-term institutional goals[1]. When you know how to operate the current system, and any change risks that you might lose out, in the short-term at least, reform is difficult, if not impossible.

This is the conundrum at the centre of the book.

Drawing on heavily on GPG’s work in more than sixty countries over the last two decades, the book combines political history, comparative analysis, behavioural insights and change management techniques from the business world to argue for a more human approach to political reform and development.

First, it argues that norms are more important than rules to the way that politics works in practice. Every organisation relies on a set on internal norms, ‘know-how’ and institutional memory to function, but this is especially so in politics, where politicians do not learn by being trained, but by being socialised into their roles. With no job description, no person specification, little professional development and no set career path, they learn how to do the job by doing it.

This means that trying to reform a political system depends more on engaging with the logic of behaviour than tinkering with structure. In short, what the rules say is less important than what the rules mean to the people who have to make those structures work.

Second, it explores how these norms are held together by a combination of personal interest, altruism, public expectation and electoral calculation. Once set, these norms are difficult to change. Even though many MPs recognise that the current logic of what they are doing is expensive, inefficient and often very ineffective, they often feel powerless to change anything.

A Tanzanian MP summed up the quandary: “I know that if I don’t give some people money, they won’t eat that day. So what else can I do? But I also know that they will need to come back again in a day, or a week, or a month to ask again. Not only this, they will tell their friends that I can help, and they then come to me, simply increasing the amount of money I need to find.” But saying no is difficult, if not impossible, when your re-election depends on the votes of those people that are asking you for help, and who believe it is the MPs’ duty to provide for them.

Third, it sets out the basis for a more behavioural approach to political development, built around the central point that stronger institutions tend to emerge when politicians believe it is their own self-interest to strengthen those institutions. It is when MPs have an incentive to invest in the formal institutions of politics, when those institutions provide rewards, resources and career incentives, and when they can be used to solve the problems that voters face, that reform occurs. Drawing on examples from Westminster to Nairobi, via Baghdad, Kigali , Washington and Dublin, the book shows how when interests can be aligned with the political logic at work, the possibilities for reform open up.

That first though requires an understanding of why politicians do what they do, and the contexts within which they operate. And recognising that that is rarely for the reasons that outsiders assume.

As Rory Sutherland, head of the behavioural science practice at the international advertising agency, Ogilvy, pointedly notes in his book about ‘ideas that don’t make sense’, you should never denigrate a behaviour until you have worked out what purpose it really serves[2].

Rather than trying to work out why MPs are doing things that don’t seem to make sense, we need to start by asking why they do make sense to the MPs that are doing them.

In short, the task of strengthening political institutions in places where it really matters is about getting to grips with what is going on inside the political mind in the first place, and working outwards from there.

Inside the Political Mind: The Human Side of Politics and How It Shapes Development is available now:

Greg will be discussing the themes of his book with Rt Hon Alistair Burt, Professor David Halpern, Professor Meg Russell, and Dr Hannah White on Wednesday 21st February 17:30-18:30 GMT at the Institute for Government.

[1] Geddes, B., (1994), Politician’s Dilemma: Building State Capacity in Latin America, Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press

[2] Sutherland, R, (2019), Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas that Don’t Make Sense, London: WH Allen, p.229