ukcivilservant

Articles about the UK Civil Service and Regulation

Speaking Truth unto … Prime Minister Trump?

It is well accepted, in the UK at least, that powerful men and women should be advised by those who are willing to ‘speak truth unto power’. It is also well recognised that senior officials – and senior members of the armed forces – and senior executives – need to offer their advice in way, and adopting a tone, that is best designed to ensure that the advice is accepted.

But what does this mean in practice? There is some advice available for those lucky enough to work with politicians who will listen to advice, even if they don’t always agree with it or accept it. Recent examples include Christopher Jary’s Working with Ministers, and How to be a Minister written jointly by ex-Minister John Hutton and ex-Permanent Secretary Leigh Lewis. But what advice might be given to those working with a politician with a more difficult personality?

This question came strongly to mind when I read 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). 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.

It is perhaps relevant that a recent 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”.

My question is, therefore, what advice would you give to senior officials who might be asked to work closely with an authoritarian Prime Minister or Cabinet Minister? Cabinet and Permanent Secretaries famously got off to a bad start with Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, and failed to establish an effective working relationship with Gordon Brown in either the Treasury or No.10. All three seem to have preferred to work with those who did not ‘push back’ too hard – ‘courtiers’ even. And it is hard to read The Blunders of our Governments or Conundrum – Why Every Government Gets Things Wrong without wondering whether very senior officials could not have done more to persuade their political masters and mistresses to take more sensible decisions. If not, then what were we employing them for?

So – go on then – imagine that you are lucky enough to be appointed Donald Trump’s Chief of Staff or Cabinet Secretary. You are in pole position to stop him making some very serious errors. How would you set about persuading him to listen to you and maybe change his mind?

Martin Stanley
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1. http://www.vox.com/2016/3/1/11127424/trump-authoritarianism .
2. According to Vox, “Authoritarians are a real constituency that exists independently of Trump – and will persist as a force in American politics … we may now have a de facto three-party system: the Democrats, the GOP establishment, and the GOP authoritarians.”
3. Anthony King & Ivor Crewe
4. Richard Bacon & Christopher Hope

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This blog was first published by Civil Service World

Martin is the author of How to be a Civil Servant whose third edition was published in2016.

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This blog contains occasional articles about the UK Civil Service, UK Regulation and associated issues. Much more detail can be found in my Civil Servant and Understanding Regulation websites.

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Are Senior Officials Now Serving Individual Ministers, not the Government?

A fascinating and worrying IfG Report is published today:

In [some] departments, policy development is sometimes carried out solely for one party (most often the party of the secretary of state), occasionally with explicit requests not to include the other side in discussions or on distribution lists. There is a lack of clarity in such circumstances about whether policy is being developed for the Government, or for one party. … In one case a secretary of state instructed officials not to speak to ‘the other party’s’ special advisers. In another, the secretary of state asked officials to keep junior ministers out of the loop because of concerns they would pass on sensitive information to their party leader. This can put officials, working for a minister on a particular portfolio, but acting on instructions from above, in an impossible situation.”

This looks at first like a clear breach of the Armstrong Memorandum which says that:  “The Civil Service serves the Government of the day as a whole, that is to say Her Majesty’s Ministers collectively, and the Prime Minister is the Minister for the Civil Service.”  On the other hand, the Memorandum goes on to say that “The duty of the individual civil servant is first and foremost to the Minister of the Crown who is in charge of the Department in which he or she is serving.”  And the IfG points out that  “The default approach of Whitehall is to avoid formalisation of rules, and to rely on personal relationships and individual good judgement to respond to pressures as they occur. This is a model of government based on the principle of constructive ambiguity, which may have worked in the context of a single-party government, but is under serious strain in the context of coalition, particularly as the focus shifts to the election.”

It is certainly very worrying that senior officials are being asked by some Ministers to hide their work from other Ministers.  Wouldn’t it be better if it were clear that this is not allowed?

The IfG Report can be found here.  Standard advice for civil servants in the run up to a general election is here.

More policy making ‘on the hoof’ from Francis Maude?

Many politicians, academics, civil servants and others will be interested to read Francis Maude’s latest thoughts, as reported in Monday’s FT.  He suggests that a new requirement (that civil servants in charge of big projects should account directly to parliament) would “toughen the relationship with ministers”.   This would be a significant departure from the longstanding principle that civil servants are accountable to ministers and only ministers to parliament, but Mr Maude argues that it would give officials a greater incentive to challenge developments they believed were wrong.  According to the FT, he said: “If you have [a senior official] who knows that he or she is going to be hauled up in front of select committees and interrogated . . . then I think you’re much more likely to have what is a very healthy thing in our system which is push-back. . . There’s a great phrase ‘speaking truth unto power’ and it’s very important – it doesn’t happen enough.”  He also said that senior civil servants in charge of projects should tell ministers bluntly if they felt they were being misdirected and insist on a formal “letter of direction” to show that they had raised their objections. If they did not, they should be accountable for failings on their watch.

This is another example of far-reaching and maybe sensible change being mooted without any serious and open discussion of the context and the consequences.  The suggestion that there should be more push-back is no doubt spot-on but it needs to be weighed against the recent Civil Service World survey which concluded that “Just 9% of civil servants believe that ministers and senior managers openly encourage challenge, debate and reporting of operational problems”.  

And a request by an official for a formal a letter of direction from a minister has always been seen as the nuclear option, as it indicates serious disagreement between officials and their political masters over the propriety of the decision.  In therefore has to be reported in the department’s annual report and accounts, and disclosed to the Public Accounts Committee.  Do Mr Maude’s colleagues really want more of such letters?

 

 

 

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