Why Some Ministers Dislike Challenge

I finished my explanation of why it can be hard to 'speak truth to power' by wondering whether very senior officials could not have done more to persuade their political masters and mistresses to take more sensible decisions. In their defence, of course, it has to be recognised that some senior politicians can be quite difficult clients. Here are some thoughts about why that is.

Power, status …

... they both inevitably change our behaviour and then our characters.  I was amused by an actor who recounted her interactions with a runner on her first film set:-

Day 1 – “No, no.  I couldn’t possibly ask you to fetch me a coffee.  I’ll get my own.  And would you like one too?”

Day 2 – “That’s very kind of you.  A flat white, please.”

Day 3 – “Where’s my goddam coffee!”

Their power and status certainly isolate Ministers and senior officials from ordinary people, and even more so from their front line staff and their concerns. And so, like almost all senior executives, Ministers tend to lose empathy with the concerns of ordinary people, and lose sympathy with the victims of the system for which they are responsible.  It’s not just that they are shielded by their political party and their civil servants.  They have to take decisions – including resourcing decisions – that will damage individuals.  The scale of many departments' operations and responsibilities 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. They have to cut the numbers or quality of staff to stay within budget limits which they have been required to accept. They cannot afford to lose sleep over yet another death in a Liverpool jail, or yet another family facing penury because of an incompetent disability assessment, or yet another hunger strike in Yarls Wood immigration removal centre, or child waiting in A&E for 6 days, awaiting a mental health bed.

(Ministers' detachment from the consequences of their decisions raises the question of the role of the civil service in implementing those decisions. Follow this link if you want to know whether civil servants must always obey orders.)

And it's worth stressing that the problem summarised above to some extent affects senior people in almost every organisation, including Permanent Secretaries and other senior officials. One extreme example was after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans when a huge crowd of mostly black and poor people descended on the convention centre and the Head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said that "We're seeing people that we didn't know exist". A more accurate comment might have been that "We're seeing people that we didn't realise we were supposed to care about".

Also, and again like most senior executives in large organisations, senior politicians have learned to compromise and to adopt the organisation’s views as their own.  You certainly do not get into a boardroom, or the Cabinet, by being the odd one out, always questioning one’s superiors. And it follows that officials’ sensible and politically wise advice might not trump a Minister’s loyalty to a political cause, or overcome their career ambitions. John Crace puts it rather more strongly in I Never Promised You a Rose Garden:

MPs feel ‘that the normal rules don’t apply inside the Palace of Westminster; that the consistency they would expect from themselves and their colleagues in other areas of life can be put on hold. Politics is known as the art of compromise: a world where you rarely get everything you want and end up settling for a lot less. A world where conscience and beliefs are frequently moving targets to be traded for some notion of a greater public good.’

And there are other reasons why Ministers find it hard to understand or accept challenging advice.

It follows that most Ministers (and senior executives) are to some extent putting on an act. They would not survive if they did not have great confidence in their own judgement and opinions, and so they also often like having great ideas. The meek do not of course inherit the political earth. Few Prime or Cabinet Ministers can resist the temptation to announce some grand initiative well before they have thought through the detail, arranged the financing, and established a sensible timeline.  There is a particular temptation, of course, to adopt challenging timescales in order to claim credit before the next election – or at least so embed the change that it cannot be reversed. Sadly, all too few of them have taken on board Steve Jobs’ observation of the lunacy of thinking that a really great idea is 90 per cent of the work. For examples, think David Cameron's Big Society, Iain Duncan-Smith's Universal Credit, and Brexit. They are not necessarily stupid ideas in themselves but they all ran into serious problems because Ministers' lack of experience led to there being no serious pre-announcement planning or consultation.


Last, but far from least, many Ministers are naturally authoritarian.  They are less likely to

And they are more likely to …

Unfortunately for officials, Professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat notes that ...

a discernible trait of authoritarian and autocratic rulers is ongoing “frustration” with the “inability to make others do their bidding” and with “institutional and bureaucratic procedures and checks and balances…. The blaming of others is very typical of autocrats, because they have difficulty listening to a reality that doesn’t coincide with their version of it. It’s part of the authoritarian temperament to blame others when things aren’t working.”

Authoritarianism also looms large in Professor Norman Dixon’s On the Psychology of Military Incompetence in which he argues that many military blunders may be attributed to the authoritarian psychology of certain military leaders – and to the failure of their subordinates to challenge them effectively (or at all). There are obvious lessons here for government. He defines authoritarians as those who …

are less likely to …  be able to put themselves in others’ shoes, give full credit to an opponent’s ability (likely calling them stupid, feeble and/or evil), accept criticism from below, accept blame, experiment, reconnoitre, learn from their own mistakes, accept information or advice which challenges their beliefs and assumptions, and be warm and sympathetic.

and are more likely to … have strong egos, be vain (but lack true self-confidence), blame a subordinate, be anti-intellectual, emphasise the importance of obedience and loyalty, take silence as consent, and dislike those who are ‘odd’ or ‘different’ – including those from a different social, educational and ethnic background

There are probably very few senior politicians who display absolutely all of these traits, and none who are totally free of all of them. Accepting blame (as distinct from changing one’s mind) does after all appear equivalent to committing political suicide. But it is not hard to think of a good number of strong characters who would score pretty highly in any test of authoritarianism. Donald Trump for a start, but maybe also Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage? Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown would also score well, I imagine.

(Lifting our eyes across the Atlantic, for a moment, it is interesting that a Vox.com article noted that authoritarianism amongst American voters correlates strongly with support for Mr Trump. This is because, it is claimed, people who score high in authoritarianism value conformity and, when feeling threatened, turn to strong leaders who promise to do whatever is necessary “to protect them from outsiders and the changes they fear … Trump in turn embodies the classic authoritarian leadership style: simple, powerful, and punitive”).

To finish this part of the discussion, here is a comment from Professor Kakabadse who reports officials’ views of Ministers in this way:-

Those Secretaries of State viewed as confident, rationalist and evidence driven were more favoured by the civil servants. These same Secretaries of States were reported as inviting comment and challenge, and of having a track record of sustained professional relationships. The most ‘difficult’ Secretaries of State were those seen to lack self-confidence, and as being overly sensitive to their surrounding circumstances. They were viewed as less likely to accept personal responsibility for decisions, especially when under pressure, and more likely to blame others, particularly the Permanent Secretary.


Martin Stanley