Should I Stay or Should I Go? The Professional Aspirations of Political Staffers

Mr. Pieter Moens

During the last decades, political staffers have increasingly gained attention from scholars with varying perspectives (Dickinson & Tenpas, 2002; Karlsen & Saglie, 2017; Pegan, 2017; Romzek & Utter, 1997; Shaw & Eichbaum, 2018). More recently, studies of the patterns and implications of staffers’ career developments have illustrated the relevance of these unelected elites (Maley, 2017; McCrain, 2017; Selling & Svallfors, 2019; Taflaga & Kerby, 2019). Furthermore, there’s mounting evidence that a growing portion of staffers step out of the shadows and attain elected office later on (Barber, 2014; Cowley, 2012). In the Netherlands, for example, more than 25% of today’s MP’s have earlier experience as staffers (Remkes et al., 2018). In this paper, we aim to join this debate on staffers career developments by explaining the professional aspirations of Flemish and Dutch political staffers.

Which staffers are more likely to pursue elected office in the future? Who is more likely to stay in politics or switch to a private – or public sector job? To address these questions, the analysis will rely on an extensive survey project among more than 950 Belgian and Dutch political staffers working at party headquarters, parliamentary party groups and ministerial cabinets. Respondents span all types of job descriptions (from administration to management) and cover a diverse group of political parties (from far left to conservative-nationalist). On the individual level, we anticipate that differences in party activism, professional expertise, job description and sociodemographic characteristics will impact the future plans of staffers. On the party level, we anticipate that the electoral and governing prospects of parties will influence their professional aspirations.

The results demonstrate that male staffers involved in party activism with expertise in communication or policy aspire an elected position the most often. In conclusion, our findings support Katz & Mair’s claim that party politics has become a separate occupational track (2009). However, staffers with more prestigious positions within the party in public office do illustrate Panebianco’s assumption that staffers with a high degree of expertise are more likely to leave politics (1988).