Over the past two decades, political consulting and political management have shown some sure signs of emerging professions.
Consider the evidence: A growing body of technical knowledge and skills; a self-conscious community of practitioners; a particular language used by practitioners; the specialization of subfields within the overall craft; the supporting institutional structure of professional organizations such as the American League of Lobbyists (ALL), the Public Affairs Council (PAC), and the American Association of Political Consultants (AAPC); and, not incidentally, a growing roster of academic, professional programs in higher education. But there are areas in which we fall far short of the hallmarks of professional development.
First, the boundaries around these occupations are not well defined. As Jim Thurber’s study of the profession six years ago found, political consultants tend to drift into and out of the field. Second, the standards of professional conduct and responsibility are not clearly delineated. While all members of the AAPC have to sign an ethics code, I am not aware of the association having used that code to discipline offending members.
Both of these shortfalls could be narrowed by a process of professional certification. But, before we go there, let’s consider the alternatives. We could do nothing and let the marketplace take care of the problem. Practitioners whose work is not first-rate will gradually be weeded out.
Further, why do we need to certify on the basis of competence? Those who behave unethically will acquire a reputation such that clients will shy away from hiring them lest that act becomes itself a public relations problem. While certainly alternatives, these possible outcomes have not proven particularly successful in the past.
Some might suggest that government licensing could—theoretically, at least—provide an effective alternative to a well-defined boundary and a set of professional standards, as is the case with doctors, lawyers, and other “strong professions.” Given the First Amendment protections of free speech, however, allowing the heavy hand of government to intrude in this most essential democratic value would be unwise and unsupportable.
The furor that emerged in the profession earlier this year when New Hampshire passed legislation to control push polling is a minute sample of the problems that would accompany any effort to license political consultants.
Certification, while undoubtedly controversial in our profession, could provide the benefits of licensure without the intervention of the state. Through a credentialing process such as I outline below, consultants could be able to add the designation CPM—certified political manager—to their names. As in accountancy, other practitioners could still hang out their shingles, but clients presumably would prefer to hire those who are certified. Importantly, one could lose certification through incompetence or transgressions of professional responsibilities—a reality that should advance both the ethical conduct and the level of practice within the profession.
So how would one acquire this status? A proposal circulated and eventually tabled by the AAPC Board of Directors more than a decade ago was based purely on criteria of experience; that is, certification would have been based on the number of campaigns for which one had consulted and won. This certainly would measure competency but not necessarily professional responsibility. And, could one be decertified upon hitting a losing streak?
Knowing my position as Director of the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management (GSPM), readers will not be surprised by my preference for an educational component—though probably not an exclusive standard—in any certification process. At GSPM, we are launching a new course in principled political leadership that will teach our students how to be effective leaders while upholding a set of societal and democratic values. We plan a systematic makeover of our curriculum based on combining these two objectives: professional responsibilities with effective management in the political arena.
I’ve worn many hats in my professional life—as a senior officer of a Fortune 100 company (Macy’s), a U.S. Congressman and now director of GSPM—but I began as a Certified Public Accountant. Earning this designation required academic credentials and work experience and adherence to defined ethical standards.
This credential made me more credible with those seeking the services I provided and enhanced my career. I am convinced a similar path would result from the institution of a certification for political managers based on the same mix of requirements.
As the first and foremost school of applied politics, GSPM has long sought to spark the debate on certification for political managers. While achieving this end will undoubtedly be a long and winding process, we welcome your thoughts as we seek to advance the dialogue.
Elevating the standards of the political management profession would be good for political managers and good for democracy. Let’s start talking about how we get this done now.
The Honorable Mark R. Kennedy is director and professor at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University and a former three-term Republican Congressman from Minnesota.
This article is the second in a series of pieces offering 10 bold ideas for the future of political consulting. Read also: The future of direct mail is digital