THE BLOG
09/05/2014 03:45 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2014

Change Coming Soon for Political Consultants

In his piece "You Lose, We Win: Consultants Profit Even When Candidates Underperform," Brendan Nyhan wonders when consultants will begin to "be held accountable for their performance on Election Day." That day is not only coming, but already happening. Political consulting is maturing in the same ways as other professions.

Many of the occupations that now have strict educational and professional certification standards, such as financial advisors, lawyers, and even doctors, were once achieved through "on the job" training and apprenticeships. While some campaign managers of the future will continue to learn the tradecraft of politics solely that way, there is a new and better model available.

In addition to experience, it is important to understand the art and science behind the "how" of politics: how to win elections; how to pass legislation; how to target multiple constituencies and develop effective messages; how to use the latest digital tools and techniques; and how to advocate for a candidate or cause. George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management (GSPM), pioneered this field of study with courses focused on applying systematic knowledge and sharing best practices. We also teach ethics, so that our students know how to win fairly and lose honorably. The school provides a credential that can stand along with a win-loss record or other criteria to provide a fuller picture for candidates in search of support staff.

Politics has grown over the last five decades into an annual, worldwide multibillion-dollar business that our Professor Dennis Johnson accurately described as "no place for amateurs." That money will continue to drive an evolution from a "good old boy" or "friend of a friend" market to one based more on having the skills essential for winning in the digital age.

"Political consultants replaced party bosses as the wielders of political power gained not by votes but by money," says Harvard historian Jill Lepore of the rise of the professional consultant class in the 1930s. As the market becomes larger and more sophisticated, the old "party hack" is less likely to survive based on reputation alone. Results and the requisite skills will be what matters.

Nyhan criticizes consultants for not broadly publicizing their client lists, but perhaps does not appreciate how doing so would put their sources and methods at risk by allowing rivals to copy successful techniques without expending the labor or capital necessary to generate them. Client disclosure does not occur in business management consulting -- try asking McKinsey for a full list. Clients, current and aspiring elected officials, are themselves accountable to the public.

Nyhan is correct that performance statistics such as a "value over replacement" measurement would be a welcome development. Given the advances in data analytics present in almost every other aspect of politics that time is coming.

Yet given the highly personal nature of politics, relationships will always be vital. Part of what a campaign does is to introduce a candidate to the world and defend his or her reputation and record against attacks. The process of running for office is not entered into quickly, and during that time a candidate should carefully vet their senior staff and advisors, to ensure both their capabilities and commitment to a shared vision.

In the end, politics isn't like horseshoes or hand grenades. Close doesn't cut it. There are no participation trophies. You may call the medical graduate with the lowest GPA in the class Doctor, but you don't call the second place finisher in an election congressman or president.

Whether it is fair or unfair, campaign managers and other staffers are always going to be heavily judged on their wins and losses. Yet just as profitless sales are not rewarded in business, neither should winning campaigns in a way that either sacrifices a candidate's good name or that leaves them little flexibility to govern benefit consultants.

In the end campaigns are a means to an end: governing. A more appropriate critique of the political consulting profession is whether they are keeping the ultimate prize in mind, a functioning democracy whose victors can work together once elected to address the weighty issues that will determine our future. In a perfect world, the true metric of success would be problems solved, not victories won. That is the path to making democracy work. This is the metric upon which all involved in politics should be judged.

Hon. Mark Kennedy is the Director of George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and a former member of the United States House of Representatives. Follow him on Twitter at @HonMarkKennedy