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website notes increasing concern that the UK government's late-1900s consensual and deliberative policy style has been replaced by a much more impositional style.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.

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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