Has it Become More Difficult to Speak Truth to Power?

The World has changed a lot over the last few decades, and Whitehall has changed with it.  The consultation page of my Understanding Policy Making website notes increasing concern that the UK government's late-1900s consensual and deliberative policy style has been replaced by a much more impositional style. These developments have arguably meant that it is now more difficult for Ministers to accept advice from senior civil servants. Several commentators have gone so far as to accuse the modern Senior Civil Service of acting more like courtiers - compared with their predecessors at least.

NAO Criticism

The Times reported, in early 2019, that the retiring head of the National Audit Office , Sir Amyas Morse, was concerned that the balance of power between ministers and senior civil servants had shifted, with officials increasingly unable to challenge bad decisions. This meant that ultimately more public money would be wasted on ambitious projects that would never be finished on time and within budget. “I still don’t think we’ve sorted out the question of the interaction between the political agenda and delivering good results and value for money,” Sir Amyas said. “There’s pressure to do things too quickly or to announce very high-profile world-beating projects. Allowing ministers to have a say in the appointment of senior officials has led to a position where ministers have a great deal of power over their civil servants. That’s unfortunate. They’re intelligent people. They understand that the consequences of disagreeing with a minister are likely to be pretty ugly.”

Other Criticism

Here are what some senior officials and others have said to me:-

In wider society:-

Within Whitehall:-

It may seem over sensitive to draw attention to such tweets, or to this one. The Minister - Matt Hancock - was, after all, talking about building a better government machine and could reasonably expect officials to welcome it. But what if his speech had included plans which the Cabinet Secretary had opposed? Would Sir Jeremy have declined to issue supportive comment, and would the absence of such comment draw attention to the rift between Minister and officials? It would be better, I think, to issue factual press releases summarising what Ministers are aiming to achieve, rather than expect senior officials to praise every Ministerial pronouncement or - even worse - just some of them.

Maybe some of the above criticisms are over-blown, but they are echoed by academic commentators:-

Professor Jeremy Richardson makes these points:

And here are some extracts from Professor Anthony King’s  Who Governs Britain?

Professor Kakabadse says that:

Longer excerpts from these three academics’ writing are here.


Martin Stanley

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