You are here

Professionalisation in Political Campaigning

The final speaker at CMPM2014 is Stephen Mills, whose interest is in the question of professionalisation in political campaigning. But what is being professionalised here? Individuals, institutions, systems? Does professionalisation occur when a cohort of professionals replace a previous non-professional cohort, or is this a more comprehensive institutional change through which new cultural norms are being adopted?

Since when does such professionalisation happen? Is it already over, is it continuing, or is it yet to happen? Does it happen quickly or slowly, disruptively or in an organised manner? And what is it caused by – exogenous factors such as technological change, or endogenous dynamics of adoption, adaptation, hybridisation?

Professionalisation is thus a contested term, and professionalisation in politics cannot be easily compared to professionalisation in formalised disciplines like law or medicine. From those disciplines' perspectives, political operatives are not professionals, but rely on personal experience and political folk wisdom only; there is no formalisation of knowledge. And is professionalisation in politics then a negative development – a debasement of citizenship, a reduction of choice and deliberation?

To research this is difficult. Professionalisation has a self-ascribed status which makes it difficult to engage critically with such self-described professionals. Stephen suggests three tests: do practitioners make a full-time living from politics (yes, some political campaigners do); do they have competency in a recognised set of skills (yes, again, but often acquired through experience rather than formal training – and they pass on those skills to others they work with and measure the effectiveness of their work); and is there an ethics and ideology of professionalism (yes, this comes through many of the statements from such political operatives).

Professionalism is sometimes seen as mercenary, though – a professional campaign manager could run a campaign for most any party, but many of them wouldn't do so due to their own political standpoints. There is more here than 'mere' professionalism, then.

Centralisation of party machines, long-term strategy development, and the development of financial management processes were all steps along the pathway towards professionalisation in Australian politics. Labor has traditionally been the party of technological innovation in this, the Liberals the party of managerial stability, but these paths have gradually converged towards a similar setup. The ongoing process of institutional change on these parties has gradually been professionalised through these developments, then.