Speaking Truth to Power

We all airily talk about the importance of civil servants providing honest, impartial and sensible advice to Ministers. But we also all know that it is very difficult to do so without damaging our relationship with the Minister. New Ministers in particular (including those new to your department) will readily suspect you of being out-of-touch with social and political priorities, over-sympathetic to the views of political opponents, naturally opposed to change, and so on.

It is surprisingly hard to find good guidance on how to provide advice to a Minister in a way that maximises the chances of the advice being respected. This is despite the fact that absolutely the same problems arise in the private sector, in the military, in the private sector, and so on. This webpage summarises the advice of which I am aware. Please do send me more material if you come across it.

But first, let's summarise ...

... the Problem

Their power and status isolates Ministers and senior officials from ordinary people, and even more so from their front line staff and their concerns. They would not survive if they did not have great confidence in their own judgement and opinions, and they like having great ideas: - think David Cameron's Big Society, Iain Duncan-Smith's Universal Credit, and Brexit. They are not stupid ideas in themselves but ran into serious problems because there had been no serious pre-announcement planning or consultation.

(It was Apple's Steve Jobs, I understand, who pointed out the lunacy of thinking that a really great idea is 90 per cent of the work.)

Ministers can also find it hard to accept challenge because the hard knocks of the political world have taught them that it is often better to assert infallibility. Any admission of doubt or error might be quoted against them for the rest of their political lives.

The scale of many departments' operations and responsibilities also mean that Ministers have to think in abstract terms where the problems of an individual claimant, say, appear quite inconsequential given the beauty of the wider concept. And operational risks are often seen as quite minor obstacles, easily overcome if civil servants would only show the necessary energy, enthusiasm and initiative.

It doesn't help that government departments inevitably focus on the power and influence of their Secretary of State, especially if that Minister has a high public profile. Senior officials will then all too often focus on their Minister's wishes, rather than think for themselves or commission analysis which might challenge their leader's views.

Tim Harford puts in nicely in his book Adapt:

'There is a limit to how much honest feedback most leaders really want to hear; and, because we know this, most of us sugar-coat our opinions whenever we speak to a powerful person. In a deep hierarchy, that process is repeated many times, until the truth is utterly concealed inside a thick layer of sweet-talk. There is some evidence that the more ambitious a person is, the more he will choose to be a yes-man - and with good reason because yes-men tend to be rewarded.

Even when leaders and managers genuinely want honest feedback, they may not receive it. At every stage in a plan, junior managers or petty bureaucrats must tell their superiors what resources they need and what they propose to do with them. There are a number of plausible lies they might choose to tell, including over-promising in the hope of winning influence as go-getters, or stressing the impossibility of a task and the vast resources needed to deliver success, in the hope of providing a pleasant surprise. Actually telling the unvarnished truth is unlikely to be the best strategy in a bureaucratic hierarchy. Even if someone does tell the truth, how is the senior decision-maker to separate the honest opinion from some cynical protestation?

So what Is to be done?

Perhaps the best succinct advice was included in an MoD document (The Good Operation) which sought to learn from the mistakes highlighted by the 2016 Chilcot Report into the disastrous planning of the 2003 Iraq war.

'Chilcot tells us that it's important to avoid 'groupthink' as we develop policy, and the best antidote to that is reasonable challenge. An environment in which challenge is expected and accepted is important. People should be receptive to reasonable challenge and assume that it is provided with the best of intentions, while those offering challenge should know how to do so effectively. Challenge isn't about proving someone right or wrong; rather it's about highlighting and exploring alternative options. These cultures and behaviours reflect a healthy organisation.

When offering challenge, you should:

When receiving challenge, you should:

This advice appears to be consistent with the best Crew Resource Management practices of airlines and larger shipping companies, who came to realise that a high proportion of accidents could have been avoided if old-style autocratic Captains had listened more carefully to their crew, and/or their crew had been more willing to report mistakes. There are occasional signs that the NHS, too, is learning similar lessons, although the prosecution for manslaughter and striking-off of Dr Bawa-Garba will have set back the acceptance of CRM in hard-pressed hospitals. (See Note 1 below.)

It helps, too, to remember expert advice on effective persuasion - advice more often directed at sales teams, but relevant nonetheless. None of this advice is at all modern, of course. Blaise Pascal, writing in the 1600s, suggested that, before disagreeing with someone, you should first point out the ways in which they are right before helping them discover a counter-point of their own accord and so persuading them to change their mind:

Experienced officials do this almost without thinking, adopting the Minister's aims as their own, whilst gently - and a little later - suggesting that there might be better ways of reaching the desired objective.

Note 1

Dr Bawa-Garba "had worked a double shift that day (12/13 hours straight) without any breaks and had been doing her clinical best, despite the demands placed upon her. The Medical Practitioners Tribunal accepted a submission that her failings had come "out of the blue and for no apparent reason", the risk of her "suddenly and without explanation falling below the standards expected on any given day" were "no higher than for any other reasonably competent doctor." 

"…we do have concerns about the impact this judgment will have on many doctors particularly trainees. We recognise that the GMC has issued guidance for doctors working in what they think are unsafe conditions – suggesting they should flag problems to their consultants and management team and have a clear paper trail to show that this has happened. However, this leaves doctors in the difficult position of being forced to choose between refusing to work in such circumstances, and therefore not only being in breach of contract but also potentially letting down patients, or risking civil or even criminal action if they do choose to work and errors or harms occur."

Martin Stanley