Bloggers Sound Off: Politicians vs. Technocrats

In this Voices on Project Management roundtable, bloggers discuss the following quote from a recent article in The Economist on the need for the professionalization of project management in government and what can go wrong when there isn’t a strong project management presence to connect strategy and implementation: “But in too many countries technocrats tend to be under the thumb of politicians and not up to the job.”
Lynda Bourne, DPM, PMP
Country: Australia
There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the statement. The role of politicians should be to govern for the long-term good of the country, provide leadership and sensibly reflect the will of the people. The role of technocrats of all disciplines should be to provide advice to the body politic and implement the policies developed by the politicians.
Unfortunately, what seems to be happening is the politicians who are supposed to lead a country have become focused on short-term self-interest and re-election. Far too many have backgrounds that simply mean they have no concept of technology and either cannot or will not understand the needs and issues associated with developing policies that make proper use of technology for the long-term benefit of society.
One example is the debate around climate change. It is politically expedient to pretend climate change is not real or the science is uncertain and thereby avoid the difficult decisions needed to affect the course of global warming. The politician gets re-elected — our children and grandchildren suffer the consequences.
At a more mundane level, maintaining the nation’s infrastructure and assets is boring. Cut maintenance and spend the money on a headline-grabbing new project and the politician gets re-elected. In the meantime, infrastructure deteriorates and the cost or repair escalates out of proportion.
Putting technocrats in charge is unlikely to solve the problem. The challenge is creating an environment where a nation’s leaders focus on the long-term good of their societies and the people they govern recognize that they do have to pay for the services provided by governments.
Mario Trentim, PMI-RMP, PMP
Country: Brazil
In most countries, politics tend to be a very important issue in every major project. Although technocrats are hierarchically subordinated to politicians, they are not necessarily under their thumbs. Technocrats have knowledge, subject matter expertise and referent power (i.e., admiration and credibility). Moreover, technocrats have stable jobs, which enables them to design and implement long-term strategies and programs.
In this way, technocrats are the driving forces behind national economic and social development. Unfortunately, there are some countries where technocrats do not have the required skills and knowledge to plan and execute good policies. They may also fail to persuade politicians in the best interest of the public in general.
But we are seeing a new generation of technocrats who are up to the job in developing countries, such as in Brazil, and who are driving these emerging economies forward through strategic goals and projects. More access to education is certainly a key aspect, but we also have more engaged younger people. Generation Y and Z care about the environmental, economic and social aspects. And another important factor is that entrepreneurs and the business world are more politically engaged in discussing national issues these days.
I would rephrase The Economist‘s quote as, “When technocrats lack competence and knowledge, they cannot be up to the job. As a consequence, they are under the thumb of politicians, who rule alone.
Peter Tarhanidis, PMP
Country: United States
Today’s global economic challenges drive political decision-making toward a trend of austerity to control costs. This leads to less government and private capital investment due to the lack of growth facing countries.
That said, the U.S. government has modeled policies that drive advancement of project management for sustaining economic growth and innovative approaches to business to attract capital investments. A couple of notable ones include:
  • NASA space program, with its accelerated project management, helped develop over 1,750 NASA spinoff inventions, such as spacecraft technology used in cell phone cameras.
  • Innovative approaches such as the FAA’s airport privatization program are designed to allow airports to generate access to sources of private capital for airport improvement and development.
These efforts demonstrate that politicians and technocrats can figure out a way to work together by keeping the focus on innovation.
How professionalized is project management in your country? How well does project management help in implementing strategy?

The views expressed within the PMI Voices on Project Management blog are contributed from external sources and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of PMI.

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