There is a need, but…

This is the third part of a blog series on the evolution of POLIS.

The last blogs of this series described why and how we want to innovate training and development in politics. But we still didn’t know what exactly it takes to transform political training and development. There was only one way to find out: talk to the people who are directly affected. That is why we invited political practitioners from across Europe to help us understand their needs. Party operatives, mayors, political talents, parliamentarians and politics-related professionals joined us in small, structured focus group discussions. 

Based on the observation that universities offer rather theoretical than applied knowledge and that partisan training programmes are usually limited by ideological and national boundaries, we tested the following hypotheses with the focus group participants:

Future political training and development need to be…

  1. …delivered by expert practitioners, to learn through first-hand experiences instead of abstract theoretical analysis
  2. …case study based, showcasing real-world scenarios, to let participants actively examine problem-solving approaches
  3. …cross-party, so pro-democratic politicians learn from each other
  4. …cross-country, to network and learn from like-minded people who are not in one’s national bubble
  5. …cross-domain, to integrate insights and perspectives from people beyond the political sphere

We discussed these hypotheses with the focus group participants to learn what kind of political training they need to further their careers. 

Hypothesis 1: From practitioners for practitioners

The participants immediately agreed with this idea. It is beneficial when learners hear firsthand experiences from people directly involved instead of abstract theoretical analysis. Besides, getting to know practitioners enriches the participants’ network. 

But the crucial questions for a sustainable learning experience are: what kind of learnings are offered, how are they presented, and is it possible to transfer them to the participants’ individual situation. It is not enough for lecturers to be practitioners themselves. They need to offer valuable, practical, and scalable learnings.

Hypothesis 2: Case study based learning

This hypothesis also resonated positively with the participants as a good way to initiate a learning experience. The participants came up with the following requirements for case studies to be of value in a curriculum. Case studies should

  • focus on the right questions & aim to solve the right problem
  • be clear to avoid misunderstandings
  • be presented in an engaging and interesting way, as people are lazy readers
  • be linked to the needs and challenges of the audience
  • offer learnings which are scalable and applicable to other contexts
  • show success factors but also obstacles and failures

But one big concern remained: if contexts are too different,strategies may be impossible to scale and adapt, e.g. regarding necessary resources. 

Hypothesis 3: Cross-party

The third hypothesis refers to the composition of the learning group. We believe that people can benefit from learning in diverse groups. Several participants appreciated the possible effect: diminish tensions among democrats and strengthen their collaboration by exploring solutions together. Such a learning space could offer an opportunity for politicians to get to know colleagues from other parties in a non-competitive way. We wanted to know under which circumstances they would benefit from a cross-party exchange. Obviously, basic rules of confidentiality and engagement would be necessary. Moreover, an informal setting would foster open exchange with national competitors, a formal setting like a training context could hinder people from feeling comfortable and speaking their minds. Consequently, cross-party learning groups are suitable for more general, big picture questions (i.e. regarding populism, digitalisation or the climate crisis), as the obstacles to share details with national competitors are often too big. 

Hypothesis 4: Cross-country

We are thinking of not only mixing different parties but also different nationalities. One participant stated that this could help to “avoid repeating the same mistakes in different countries”. Thanks to the participants’ feedback we were able to identify requirements regarding both the group and the topic. The participants need to have something in common, such as working in a comparable function, being at a similar stage in their career, having the same thematic focus, or dealing with similar challenges. This basic level of homogeneity in diversity makes an exchange fruitful and the variety of perspectives can be enriching for one’s own work. Secondly, we record the unanimous opinion that international groups are beneficial for topics “that know no boundaries” and are not dependent e.g. on the political system. If the topic is sharp and clear and the connected problem solving strategies work “borderlessly”, international participants can inspire each other to discover a potential future. 

However, our critical participants also formulated a valid counterargument. Since the political culture and institutional structures are very different from country to country, there can be too many differences on the practical and informal level, and it is difficult to apply the learnings if the political framework is too different. Thus the answer to the cross-country hypothesis is also “it depends”. 

Hypothesis 5: Cross-domain

Our last hypothesis would increase the diversity even further by bringing in not only political professionals, but also professionals from other fields. The participants replied that this would be beneficial if everybody worked on the same topic and were able to bring together different pieces of the same puzzle. This would offer an opportunity for a “systemic” learning approach involving stakeholders with different sets of expertise.

The big concern here is that participants “could not speak the same professional language”. If people are working in completely different fields and there is no common ground, they might not be able to connect. Instead of enriching each other, participants might not understand each other and benefit from the experience. It may be interesting to listen to each other, but the learning quality for the individual work context would probably be limited. 

These insights show that political professionals generally agree with our hypotheses but they also mentioned reasonable doubts and concerns. The focus groups were vital for us for developing a new kind of political training.  Find out in our next blog how we integrated these learnings into the concept of POLIS.

Interested in joining the project? Find out how you can be part of this journey here!