Policy and Political Organizations Are Often Poorly Run. Here Are Three Reasons Why

Horror stories abound of poorly managed think tanks, political offices, and advocacy nonprofits. While I don’t have hard evidence that management at these organizations is systematically worse than a typical for-profit business, I have long suspected that certain aspects of the political arena make management especially hard. To be fair, according to Gallup, excellent management is rather rare in any sector. But for a few reasons, good management is probably even rarer among policy and political groups. This feels like an appropriate first post to help identify what executives in political and advocacy organizations are up against on a daily basis. I expect most of this blog will focus on issue advocacy and think tanks where my experience is greatest, but this one applies more broadly to include political offices. 

What’s the definition of success? 

For private-sector firms, having a financial bottom line and general agreement about the goal (generating profit) provides a level of discipline in measuring success that political and advocacy organizations can rarely achieve. While nonprofits and legislative offices do face financial pressure in the form of limited resources, they do not have the same level of clarity around what constitutes strong performance. For instance, articulating how successful a political negotiation was requires comparing its outcome to all possible outcomes—knowledge that a manager doesn’t have.  It’s much more complex than setting a revenue target. Great organizations should still aim to set goals and hold themselves accountable, but even the best in the political arena will have a harder time defining what success looks like compared to a for-profit. 

Moreover, having multiple goals at once makes things more difficult. Great for-profits often pursue values beyond simply making money, but everyone can agree a company with net negative income isn’t doing well. Not so in political organizations. An elected official might decide to hire a close political ally to cement a key relationship or please a particular constituency, despite the person’s limited ability to do what the job description demands. This behavior harms effectiveness towards certain ends, but also advances alternative goals. 

Nonprofits must often please multiple constituencies who all may have different definitions of success for the organization. Funders, whether foundations or private individuals, might support a policy organization believing its moderate, nuanced policy ideas align with their interests and values. The organization’s board and employees may have a different perspective, seeing more value in a bolder stance that energizes activists and grows its network of allies. Investors, management, and employees may all have different preferred strategies in a for-profit organization, but at the end of a quarterly earnings report, there can be more agreement on whether a strategy worked or not. In non-profits, the data are rarely that clear. And further, some actors may simply believe that their position (moderate, extreme, or something else) deserves voice, regardless of the strategic consequences. Success is having an opportunity to say something and be heard. Under these circumstances, there may never be agreement among multiple constituencies on what success looks like. 


The next two reasons why managing political and policy organizations is difficult stem from a hypothesis that the individual skill sets that typically excel in a political environment often undermine strong management instincts. I suspect attitudes towards information and transparency play a key role. You’ve heard the phrase “information is power.” There is a lot of truth to this and effective political operators often learn to share or withhold information in strategic ways to advance their interests. If you’ve ever met with tight-lipped staff member for an elected official you’ve seen this in action. While it may be frustrating for a constituent or lobbyist who would prefer more information about where the political leader stands or what the staffer thinks beyond staid talking points, the staffer is acting quite rationally. She may have multiple reasons to withhold information including not wanting to get out ahead of her boss, not wanting to share a different opinion that would undermine her boss, or planning a rollout of a position on an issue or bill that needs to be vetted with key constituencies first. Individuals who are generally careful with what they share might perform better on average than ones who are not under these circumstances. 

The problem arises when the cautious staffer takes on a management role, and exercises that caution in situations where it is more harmful than helpful. Managers will often need to keep sensitive information close and not inform a broader audience, but sharing too little has downsides too. As former Google CEO Eric Schmitt noted in an interview, building “common knowledge” is a key role of effective executives. In his example, ensuring everyone in the organization is working off the best available information is critical to coordinate effectively and take advantage of best practices learned that need to be shared widely. I would also add that great managers provide additional context so their teams can operate independently. Knowing that allies in an immigration rights coalition are deeply skeptical of a particular policy idea will help your government relations and communication staff avoid undermining them to external partners. Limiting strategic knowledge like this can hamper a team in myriad ways.  

Consistently withholding information will eventually harm office trust and cohesion. Not explaining fully the reasoning behind decisions saps morale, particularly where there is disagreement. Without sufficient understanding, employees will often fill in the blanks, imputing reasons that may have little basis in fact. The upshot is that managers, using skills and instincts to hold their cards close that have made them successful, end up running teams with little low levels of trust. It’s a recipe for dismal moral and poor performance.

Political Entrepreneurship

Finally, a skill set that helps people excel in a political environment, but could hurt in a management one, is the instinct to identify and react to immediate opportunities. In a rapidly changing political environment, with dozens, hundreds or thousands of people engaging on a particular issue, it pays to be flexible and to respond to a situation where the best laid plans are no longer relevant. For example, an individual with great emotional intelligence may be able to read the room during a sensitive political conversation, adjusting the planned talking points on the fly in a way that will make those points more likely to land well and bring others around to their view. That same individual may rightly have high confidence in their ability to improvise, and see little need for planning and organization. What works for one person, however, will not work for several who must communicate, coordinate, and execute together. In a constantly changing environment, the seasoned political operator may struggle to bring along a large team that needs to be on the same page to work effectively. Of the three reasons for poor management, this seems to have the closest analogue in the for-profit sector where a serial entrepreneur who constantly sees opportunities for new business may struggle to execute on those ideas. 

What To Do 

Managers that experience some or all of these these challenges can take steps to ensure that the skills that have made them successful so far, do not impede them in a management role. Fast-paced political entrepreneurs should pair themselves with more operationally minded colleagues who can keep everyone in the loop and execute on the political campaigns the entrepreneur dreams up. Managers who are typically cautious with information can learn to use different standards when sharing internally vs. externally and be thoughtful that the possible benefits and risks may change dramatically with different audiences [note there needs to be a culture of trust within the organization for this to work (i.e. no leaking)]. Finally, the challenge of setting goals probably warrants extra time spent on goal articulation within political organizations, partly as a way to structure trade-offs among possible options. Though not everything needs to be shared externally, objectives should be well understood by the board and staff to provide as much alignment and clarity as possible. 

Does this fit with your experience? Let me know in the comments.