Being the secretary general of a party is not the same in every political party. In some parties, this is merely an operational role concerned with the execution of the party’s political agenda. In others, the role is highly political, and the position can be seen as the “next in line” after the party’s president or chair. Those of you reading this piece may have considered applying for or held this position at some point in your career. In this article, we explore what the role of the party secretary is supposed to be. Is a party secretary’s responsibility merely to implement what the political leadership needs, or does the position entail a political aspect, which can serve to challenge the board and presidency of the party, when needed?
Being a chameleon
Similarly to any other position in a political party, a party secretary’s tasks and responsibilities often differ from the advertised job description. One thing is clear: the party secretary is, on paper, responsible for running the daily political work of the organisation.
In reality, the role often extends to cover unexpected tasks, including completing the unfinished jobs of other units. This shifts the focus of the role from strategy to pure operational work. But, during a political campaign, the position’s responsibilities will often overlap with the work of the campaign manager. All of this means that the party secretary is frequently expected to be a chameleon. Therefore, the person in the role needs to be agile and proactive in order to ensure they have control over the daily political work of the organisation while also carrying out unexpected tasks.
Ensuring smooth sailing
The role of a party secretary is partially implementation and partly execution. For example, the secretary must consult with the party’s board to understand the organisation’s political direction. It’s rare for a party secretary to be allowed to decide which campaign to run or which political deals to make. But, with political input from the leadership, the party secretary can set up a strategy for how the operational machine of the organisation can best implement the political agenda. This means the party secretary should ensure that all party units run like a Swiss clock.
But, as we know, nothing runs smoothly in politics. That means that a party secretary should always be on alert and in contact with the organisation’s various units. The role doesn’t requiring micromanaging others, but rather guiding and empowering the teams to implement the agenda as closely as possible to the vision.
Keeping party leadership on the right track
The role of a party secretary is to help the political leadership set the agenda. A good secretary not only implements a given agenda, but also enables the leaders of their party to recognise the resources, motivation and possibilities in the organisation in order to assess the risks of political decisions. It is hazardous when the person in the role believes they cannot challenge the political leadership nor flex their muscle when a political idea is infeasible. A good party secretary understands that their role is not that of a project manager. It is important to become politically savvy and to assist the political leadership in using the party as a vehicle to attain their goals.
Building trust with party leadership
We cannot ignore the fact that the political leadership often appoints party secretaries, which can make secretaries fearful when it comes to challenging the leadership’s opinion. If this fear exists, the party is most likely working in a dysfunctional way and should strive to improve its working culture and ethics code.
It’s important for a party secretary to have a trusting relationship with the political leadership and the party’s teams. This requires having open and honest conversations about the organisation’s status and how it can serve the political agenda. There should be no fear in challenge the political leadership. It’s not uncommon for party secretaries to fail in the long-run if they present the political leadership with a fake reality, painting a dysfunctional organisation as operating smoothly. This will likely lead to political failure for the party. A party secretary, you should be an example of trust and transparency for the entire organisation. The party culture starts with the standards set by the secretary.
Making the role one’s own
This piece began by asking: “what is the party secretary’s role supposed to be?” To a large degree, the role itself depends on the character of the person holding the position. There is no guidebook on what a given role in politics is supposed be. A mentor of mine used to say, “you don’t learn the job of politics from the book; you learn it from the road.” This is particularly true for the role of party secretary. The role goes beyond the job description in numerous and unexpected ways. The ideal party secretary is brave and willing to challenge a wrong political direction. They are also must be ready to implement an organisational strategy, while simultaneously building the party’s culture. So, what is the role of party secretary supposed to be—a guide or a follower? The answer is both. The position is that of a chameleon — constantly changing, while keeping one eye on the political goal and the other on the political reality of the organisation.