Being the secretary general of a party is not the same in every political party. In some parties, this is merely an operational role in 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 “president” or “chair.” Those of you reading this piece have been or considered applying for this position at some point or another. In this piece, we explore what the role of the party secretary is supposed to be. Is it a mere political execution role to implement what the political leadership needs, or does the position require a more political part challenging the board and presidency of the party?
Similarly to any other positions in political parties, a party secretary’s tasks and responsibilities differ from the job description advertised to get the position. One thing is clear, the party secretary is, on paper, responsible for running the daily political work of the organisation. Yet, the role often extends with unexpected tasks, completing the unfinished jobs of other units and shifting the focus from strategy to pure operational work. The position’s tasks often overlap when a political campaign is running and a new sheriff is in town: the campaign manager. All of this only means one thing: the party secretary of any party is supposed to be a chameleon, and for that, the person in the role needs to be agile, flexible and proactive to make sure they have absolute control over how to run the daily political work of the organisation.
The role of a party secretary is partially implementation and execution. The party secretary is a role that consults with the party’s board to understand the organisation’s political direction. It is rare when a party secretary can decide which campaign to run or what political deals to make. With political input, the party secretary can set up a strategy to guide the operational machine of the organisation in implementing the political agenda. This means the party secretary should ensure that all party units run like a Swiss clock, except that nothing runs smoothly in politics, which means that the party secretary should always be on alert and in contact with the units so that nothing slips away. The role needs not micromanaging, but rather guiding and empowering the teams to implement the agenda as closely as possible to the vision.
The role of a party secretary is to help the political leadership set the agenda. A good secretary general not only implements but also enables the presidency of their party to recognise the resources, motivation and possibilities in the organisation to assess the risks of any political decision. It is hazardous when the person in the role believes their task is not to challenge the political leadership and to flex their muscle when a political idea is not feasible. A good party secretary understands that their role is not that of a project manager. It is important to become politically savvy and to assit the political leadership in using the party as a vehicle to attain their goals.
We cannot ignore the reality that the political leadership often appoints party secretaries. Thus, there is often fear to challenge anything on the possibility of removal or replacement. If this fear exists, your organisation is most likely working in a dysfunctional way and should work on its working, ethical culture. A party secretary needs to work on having a complete trust relationship with the political leadership and the party’s units. This requires an open and honest conversation about the organisation’s status and how it can serve the political agenda. No fear is allowed to challenge the political leadership. We have seen many party secretaries fail when presenting the political leadership with a fake reality of a functional organisation which ultimately leads to political failure. Your role as party secretary is to be an example of trust and transparency across the organisation. The party culture starts with the standard of the party secretary.
I started this piece by asking: “what is the party secretary’s role supposed to be?” As mentioned, the role itself depends on the character of the person in the position. There is no guidebook on what roles in politics are supposed to 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 true for the role of party secretary, the role goes beyond the job description. The ideal party secretary is politically brave to challenge a wrong political direction and is ready to implement a strategy while building the party’s culture. Finally, to answer the question of what the role of the party secretary is supposed to be. The position is that of a chameleon — constantly changing — with one eye on the political goal and the other on the political reality of the organisation.