[SCMP Column] C-suite team in politics

January 09, 2017

Donald Trump may not be “draining the swamp”, but he is without doubt drawing on a new and different pool for the people who will fill his new government. In short, he is turning to people with business experience, with scant regard for their experience in government.

That has attracted enthusiastic support from many in US business. But my prediction is that this enthusiasm is likely to be short-lived.

The numbers on Trump’s bias towards business appointments are striking. A study of the biographies of Trump’s top eight officials (president, vice-president, chief of staff, attorney general, and the secretaries of state, commerce, defence and treasury), reported by the FT’s Gillian Tett last week,  shows they have just 55 years of government experience between them – and most of this in the military.

By contrast, Obama’s top eight have 117 years between them, while George Bush Junior’s team had 80 years, Bill Clinton’s 101 years and George Bush Senior’s had 79 years.

Now compare the team’s experience in the business world. Trump’s top-eight team together has 83 years, while the Obama team has a meagre 5 years of business experience between them.

Many in US business seem excited by the implied culture change at the heart of the incoming Trump administration. They may be right to be excited. After all, frrustration with bureaucracy and an impatience to achieve practical results could drive welcome changes. But they should be cautious about what they wish for. There are some good reasons why business and government cultures are different, and there may be good reasons to respect those differences.

Having wrestled for the past decade in APEC on behalf of business – the APEC Business Advisory Council (ABAC) is formally tasked to input business concerns to the APEC decision-makers – I have had a ringside seat on the culture-clash between business and government officials. I have come to believe the clash is inevitable, perhaps necessary, and on both sides we need to respect and have patience with the differences.

One epic illustration occurred in Kazan in the Islamic south of Russia in May 2012. Kazan was host to the year’s second cluster of APEC senior official meetings. Thousands of government officials were gathered over a period of three weeks to participate in one or more of around 80 meetings focused on everything from trade and investment to illegal logging, from services to human resources development.

For us in ABAC Kazan will be remembered above all else as the location for an inaugural meeting of the PPFS – the Policy Partnership on Food Security. In APEC its structure was unique and highly novel. The chair was from business, and the majority of its 100+ members were business representatives concerned with the food sector. Extraordinarily for APEC, government officials were in a minority. It was an exciting departure from a business point of view. It was almost a catastrophe.

Why? Because the business members arrived with a long menu of initiatives they wanted governments to consider for action, and high expectations over progress towards implementation. Government officials arrived interested to hear business views, but at the same time obsessed with due process. They were required to report back to ministries – their own, and others that were linked – and in the democracies among APEC member economies they were subject to rules on public accountability, transparency of processes, and so on.

At the same time, the government officials had sometimes-justifiable suspicions about the agendas of the business representatives at the table. Top executives from Cargill or Monsanto or Tyson or other top food companies might have huge expertise and brilliant ideas for improving food security, but can you blame a Japanese or Indonesian official for worrying whether there were hidden commercial objectives too?

The culture clash was complete, and beyond reconciliation. The two day meeting broke up with most business representatives tearing their hair out with frustration at the lack of substantial progress. Top executives paused to ask whether they should have afforded to take a week out of their shareholder-pressured lives to visit a remote city in southern Russia for so few measurable results.

The PPFS still exists. Indeed it has a busy and useful agenda on coordinating regional policy on food security. But the top executives stay away and the ambitious expectations of quick and measureable results have faded.

As an advisor to, and supporter of Hong Kong’s business members in the APEC Business Advisory Council, I have watched this culture clash at close quarters hundreds of times over the past decade. There is no question that government officials’ obsession with “due process” drives us all crazy.

But I have come to believe that this obsession has to be respected. The crisp and efficient decision-making we can aspire to achieve in the privacy of company boardrooms must remain a pipe-dream in the all-too public context of a democratically-elected government answering daily to voters and a vigilant media.

So if Donald Trump’s C-suite team bring into government a zeal to work more efficiently and to eliminate redundant or duplicative processes, all well and good. But if they bring to their new jobs a naïve zealot view that they can impose business-like efficiencies into the US administration, they will either spend their lives frustrated and in constant warfare with officials, or they will inflict serious damage on the “checks and balances” that sit at the heart of all of our functioning democracies.

At this point, with just 11 days to go before Trump is sworn in as the 45th US President, I am intrigued to see how Trump’s neophyte team manages this culture clash. It is possible they could bring terrific improvements to decision-making in the US administration. But I remain dubious. My own conviction is that the most serious malaise at the heart of US government is not bureaucrats, but all of those lawyers that populate Congress and Senate. That is perhaps a hornet’s nest I should not disturb for today.
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