Ways of Measuring Political Competence

The public needs ways of measuring political competence, for it to be confident in its politicians: collectively and individually

All politicians, whatever their ideology and approach to government (6.2.1), should adopt policies which they believe would benefit the public.  And the public needs to be sure that their politicians are making competent decisions.  The following list is indicative of key policy areas requiring competence:

●  The criteria for the acceptability of governance that appeared at the start of this book (2.1) include maintaining law and order, preventing hardship, and providing public services and infrastructure.  There is a clear requirement for operational efficiency in these matters.

●  A government is responsible for setting the levels of government spend and taxation, to provide the services and benefits it has promised.  Macroeconomic policy is important for the health of the economy (3.3.8).

●  The environment is a shared asset, and a government is responsible for the regulations that protect it (

●  Prudence (2.6) is an essential aspect of political competence.  Politicians should take account of the likely future impact of current decisions in each of the above fields, as well as on social harmony, foreign policy, and the use of military force.

●  Negotiation (2.4) is a key aspect of a politician’s role: with each other to form policy, with the public to win its support for policies, with institutions and private service-providers, and with representatives of other countries.

Poor performance in any of these policy areas causes disquiet, so the public needs ways of measuring political competence in all of them.   They are all issues which are examined in more detail later in this chapter, but here the consideration is their impact on the public perception of competence.  This is a combination of awareness and the availability of published information, which is different in each case:

●  Operational efficiency can be measured by performance against declared targets.  Performance of the National Health Service is highly visible in Britain, as illustrated by a BBC report in January 2023 for example, NHS crisis: Rishi Sunak knows he will be judged on fixing its problems: “the NHS is again high on the list of the public’s concerns”.

●  Economic performance can be measured against key indicators, such as growth in GDP, inflation, and joblessness, and is always reported on worldwide.  For example, when Liz Truss was forced to resign due to economic incompetence, after only 45 days in office, the Financial Times’ editorial said that her premiership had “trashed not only the UK’s economic standing but also its reputation for political stability”.  The public and the financial markets had lost confidence in her and her party.

●  Environmental issues are flagged up in the press from time to time, when a specific issue is brought to their attention – as when DW reported that Trump prepares to dismantle US environmental law, fulfilling an election pledge.  Voters knew what they were getting in that example, but many would have been distressed.

●  A lack of prudence is easier to criticise after something adverse has occurred, but sometimes problems can be clearly foreseen.  Angela Merkel increased Germany’s dependence on Russian gas, despite warnings in 2018 that Russia would be able to use it as a geopolitical weapon.  Four years later, that happened: “Russia is using energy supplies as a “weapon of war”, France said on Tuesday after Russia’s Gazprom cut deliveries to a major customer in the country while also planning to shut its main gas pipeline to Germany for three days this week.”

●  Britain’s negotiations with the EU, after having voted to withdraw from the bloc in a Brexit. were almost a textbook example of how not to negotiate.  Michel Barnier’s Secret Brexit Diary asserted that “the EU side was professional and properly prepared, whereas the UK was not”.  The British were arrogant and confrontational.

The above examples all illustrate why public confidence in politicians was eroded by what they were reading in the press.  Politicians cannot expect to escape criticism for being incompetent in countries with a free press.



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6332.htm.