A model for a Political Leaders’ Emotional Wellbeing programme

The reasons for introducing a Political Leaders’ Emotional Well-being programme may be most easily explained by using the UK as an example – where there’s plentiful evidence it is so sorely needed.  But it is far from the only nation which would benefit from such a programme  to support sustainably healthy government.

On this page we will discuss:

  1. the need to address the environmental factors which can undermine MPs’ psychological well-being
  2. a model for addressing those factors at a systemic level
  3. a proposed way forward

MPs’ well-being: the bigger picture

Numerous studies conducted over the last few decades have shown how an individual’s emotional well-being is intimately interwoven with their ability to think clearly and healthily.  It inevitably follows, then, that anything which adversely affects that well-being for MPs can’t help but impact their decision-making.  And this in turn can, to a degree, affect the well-being of the populace they serve.

We’re not suggesting all MPs are psychological stretcher cases.  But would they need to be for this risk of ‘trickle-down psychonomics’ to be a concern?  Especially if that risk is growing?

When we Zoomed with you on 9th February, you spoke of the ‘poison’ that has built up in the corridors of power in recent times.  Inevitably there has always been toxicity in the political arena, but surely nothing like the Chernobyl-esque levels which have been mushrooming over the last seven years.

But how can this situation be turned around, when trust – in politicians and the Parliamentary machinery – has been such a major casualty of the malaise?  How can any reviews and redesigns of the UK’s democratic institutions be conducted in such a way that politicians and the public can reasonably believe in them?

‘Restoring confidence’ is a poisoned chalice

When this subject comes up, many people are quick to default to ready-made phrases, like ‘Restoring confidence’ or Restoring trust’ in the system.  But doing so could be either extremely foolish or impossible.  (What follows may sound pedantic, but it’s critical when exploring approaches to effective and sustainable change.)

These ‘restoring’ phrases suggest ‘returning the confidence people once had in the system’.  But why does it need restoring?  Why has it has eroded?  The evidence suggests it’s because ever-more people have now realised their confidence had been misplaced all along.  (Who knew a Prime Minister and his government could get away with so much, until Johnson came along and demonstrated it?) Restoring ‘misplaced confidence’ would be extremely foolish.

However, Brexit and Johnson have shown there’s a world of difference between misplaced confidence and justifiable confidence.  And some aspects of the UK’s democratic institutions may warrant justifiable confidence.  But that’s not where the restoration is needed.  And you can’t ‘restore’ it to those parts of the system where it never existed: where it had always been misplaced.  Instead, that’s where justifiable confidence must be created from scratch.

But given the interwoven complexities of the country’s democratic and administrative systems – which have evolved organically over centuries – it’s unlikely to be a simple task to sort the wheat from the chaff.

To turn Britain into a sustainably healthy democracy, then, it will not be enough merely to redesign the most obviously ailing parts of the system.  There seem to be two requirements:

  1. a root and branch review of the whole system – to determine where (if at all) justifiable confidence is already warranted, and where it isn’t
  2. that review – and any constitutional/administrative reforms which happen as a result – need to be conducted through a process in which everybody (regardless of their political persuasions) can have justifiable confidence.

Only then will it be reasonable to expect the people of this country (and the governments of others) to have viable reasons to trust any new/revised institutions and systems which that process produces.

What might such a process look like?

A transparent model

During those tortuous Brexit debates in 2017/18, when you and your colleagues were often pulling late-nighters – and TV stations were camped out with their temporary studios on the green opposite the Houses of Parliament – MPs of all political stripes were giving their views each evening on the latest state of play.  And as the shenanigans became ever more convoluted and unpredictable, exasperated Members from all parties were repeating the same phrase:  “The system is unfit for purpose”.

Interestingly, no matter which side of the debate they were on; no matter how vehemently opposed to one another’s opinions about Brexit itself, the ‘unfitness for purpose’ of the system in which they were expected to function was a single unifying factor.  Crucially, though, not one of them ever explicitly stated the purpose for which the system was unfit.  And none of the interviewers called them out on this.  Had they done so it would have been fascinating to discover if those MPs were in also agreement about that purpose.

We noticed this because ‘fitness for purpose’ is an area of critical thinking in which we have a particular interest, and more than a little experience.

An antidote to misplaced confidence

In 2010 we were one of the founding Directors of the Institute of Internal Communication.  At the time there were no empirical practice standards for Internal Communication, so we set out to develop them.  For health reasons we left the Institute in 2013, but never gave up on our goal which, it turned out, drove us to find a solution to misplaced confidence.

As a business discipline Internal Communication faces a unique challenge, because (unlike Finance, sales, HR etc) it is the only activity done by everyone in the workplace.  So it’s the only business activity where it’s literally true that “Anyone can do it”.  But that phrase also has a colloquial meaning, does it not?  When someone says: “Ah, c’mon, anyone can do that” they’re suggesting it takes no specialist skills to do it well.  As a result, many people are convinced they’re already skilful enough at internal communication – whether or not that’s true.  Why, then, would they need to follow new standards?

This unique cultural blind-spot meant we couldn’t just come up with a set of Internal Communication Standards, and expect everyone to pay attention to them.  We also had to overcome years or decades of potential misplaced confidence, in which many people had invested much of their business self esteem.  To meet this need, in 2015 we created an antidote to misplaced confidence: ‘TFVP’.


This is a method for developing new working practices in a way which makes them ‘Transparently Fit for Valid Purposes’.  It can be used for pretty much any human endeavour or system.

In simple terms there are three steps:

  1. Explicitly define the purpose (or, sometimes, purposes) of the activity or system in question (say, the Ministerial Code, or the electoral system, or the emotional support of MPs)
  2. Validate those purposes. (There could be little worse than having a system which is providing the most efficient and effective ways of fulfilling the wrong purposes.)
  3. Provide transparency, by showing your workings out:
  4. why should people believe the purposes are valid? (eg, they clearly support the Nolan Principles)
  5. how can people have justifiable confidence that a newly designed way of doing things is Fit for those Transparently Valid Purposes? (eg, how does it support the Nolan Principles, and how well does it do so?)

We have developed rigorous procedures to underpin these steps.


TFVP allows everyone to see how the results have been arrived at, and enables contributions from all interested parties.  It therefore minimises both individual cognitive bias and collective ‘special interest’ bias.  It also delivers the potential to nurture a healthier political culture – moving away from its often-times combative approach, and evolving into an increasingly collaborative one.  Best of all, its transparency means justifiable confidence is hard-wired in, because it elegantly backs everybody into an empowering corner.

Any practice or system which is not TFVP will, by default, be either:

  • Transparently Unfit for Valid Purposes
  • Transparently Fit only for Invalid Purposes, or
  • Transparently Unfit for Invalid Purposes.


If the UK’s political institutions were to be made TFVP, MPs would know they’re working within a system that’s got their back.  Our TFVP model would also make it all but impossible for anyone without valid cause – either inside or outside Westminster – to argue against the new systems.

That ‘without valid cause’ caveat is vital because neither validity nor fitness are necessarily black and white; there can often be different degrees of both:

  • could a given purpose be even more valid?
  • how much fitter could a particular system be?

(That’s why our diagram has arrows at the end of each axis, to show that these are continuums.)

It’s also why TFVP has to be an open-ended process, so it can maximise the possibility of:

  • moving the nation’s democracy in an increasingly healthy direction, and
  • keeping pace with an evolving society. (For example, cyber security or DE&I policies, which might have qualified as TFVP twenty years ago, would surely be unfit today.)

But could our TFVP model work in practice?  Would it be enough on its own?

Designing a sustainably healthy democracy

40% of the world’s ISO standards originate in this country.  These British Standards aren’t just flung together any old how; they’re developed using a specific method.  There is a Standard for developing British Standards.  It’s called BS0.

In 2016, to help us develop our Internal Communication Standards, we were trained to use BS0 by the British Standards Institution.  Obviously BS0 is a tried and trusted process.  It has international credibility – but it is still flawed.  For all its virtues, it lacks the essential transparency of our TFVP model.

Crucially, though, we know from experience that TFVP and BS0 are mutually compatible; they dovetail and support one another perfectly.  A marriage of the two offers a method for reviewing and redesigning any and every aspect of Britain’s democratic institutions, in a manner which can:

  • minimise the possibility of them being hijacked by special interest groups
  • maximise the possibility of delivering the best results for the people of this country
  • nurture sustainable, justifiable confidence (here and overseas) in British democracy
  • support the psychological well-being of the people working within those institutions.

In short, we can provide a robust, credible process through which a group (or several groups) of appropriately qualified people can forge a sustainably healthy democracy for the UK.

It is an apolitical and ‘aseptic’ process, which can flush the British political establishment of its poison, and replace it with minimum hygiene standards in which everyone – regardless of their political affiliations – can have justifiable confidence.

We are not so sanguine as to imagine our hybrid model couldn’t benefit from further refinement if it’s to work for political systems (we are no more immune to blind-spots than anyone else).  But our experience (having applied our Internal Communication Standards inside public sector bodies including GCHQ, the European Central Bank and the UN) gives us good reason to be justifiably confident that it provides a sound base from which to start.