Failures to 'speak truth to power' are a huge problem in the private and not-for-profit sectors as well as in government.
Perhaps one of the most expensive private sector failures happened when RBS' Fred "The Shred" Goodwin pressed on with the 2007 acquisition of the Dutch bank ABM Amro. He paid three times book value despite the fact that ABN had, during the negotiations, already sold its Chicago based LaSalle Unit - the asset most prized by RBS - and the emerging credit crunch/financial crisis meant that ABN could not deliver the earnings that RBS expected. ABN expected RBS to seek to reduce the price it would pay but RBS pressed on and paid c£40 billion more than was necessary,
But failures to provide good strong advice to decision makers is particularly worrying when it happens in government. Some famous UK government blunders are listed on the Understanding the Civil Service website. And many, if not most, other governments are much worse than the UK's in accepting honest advice from officials. Perhaps the best/worst example was the Soviet Union. In his book Chernobyl, Serhii Plokhy tells how a Minister told his Congress that nuclear power stations could be built two years more quickly if design and construction could take place concurrently. Engineers knew that this was a very foolish approach and that the target could not be met. 'But if the party so ordered, and the state managers demanded it, the plant managers had no choice but to fall in line.'
British officials are proud of their supposed willingness to speak frankly to their political bosses, but there is some evidence that, for one reason or another, senior civil servants are nowadays less likely to speak truth to power than were their predecessors. A separate web page on the Civil Servant website looks at why this change might have occurred. The rest of this web page summarises a few examples of modern courtier-like behaviour, of which the most serious pre-Brexit failure was during Prime Minister Blair's 'sofa government' in the run up to the Iraq War.
The Troubled Families Programme
Jonathan Portes describes this programme as:
‘a perfect case study of how the manipulation and misrepresentation of statistics by politicians and civil servants – from the Prime Minister downwards – led directly to bad policy and, frankly, to the wasting of hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. …
The point is that it was the government’s deliberate misrepresentation of the data and statistics that led to badly formulated targets, which in turn translated into a funding model that could have been designed to waste money. Bad stats meant bad policy.
It was in March 2015, that Ministers decided to preempt the result of the evaluation, claiming that: More than 105,000 troubled families turned around saving taxpayers an estimated £1.2 billion. This was untrue. And we – including the civil servants responsible for the press release - knew it at the time … We have, as of now, absolutely no idea whether the TFP has saved taxpayers anything at all; and if it has, how much. The £1.2 billion is pure, unadulterated fiction.
Manchester (for example) have identified, worked with and turned around a staggering 2385 ‘troubled families’. Not one has ‘slipped through the net’ or refused to engage with the programme. Leeds and Liverpool have a perfect success rate in each ‘turning around’ over 2000 ‘troubled families. By my reckoning, over 50 other local authorities across the country have been similarly ‘perfect’ in their TF work. Not one single case amongst those 50 odd councils where more ‘troubled families’ were identified or where a ‘troubled family’ has failed to have been turned around.’
The PAC subsequently reported as follows:
‘The Department had a target of “turning around” the lives of 117,910 families identified by local authorities as troubled. It made payments to local authorities for “turning around” the lives of 99% of these. An evaluation commissioned by the Department could not find evidence of whether or not there had been any significant impact. Additionally, publication of the Department’s evaluation of the Troubled Families programme was delayed for more than a year, and we consider this delay to be unacceptable. The Department was evasive when explaining the reasons for this delay, furthering the impression that government is reluctant to be open and transparent about the Troubled Families programme.’
And then there was ...
Another ex-insider, Matthew Taylor, reported that
‘One of the more uncomfortable experiences I had as a Government advisor came in meetings when it was clear that well informed and well paid civil servants were self-censoring in the face of political determination. As the minister (or Prime Minister) described the policy they wanted to unveil, or the commitment they wanted to make, you could see the officials wrestling with the need to provide a reality check but all too often deciding it was better to nod sagely than look career-threateningly unhelpful.
[One example was] the sorry tale of social investment. Social entrepreneur David Floyd, the chair of the Alternative Commission on Social Investment - has a pithy quote about this: The idea that there are enough organisations underserved by our mainstream financial services to enable the creation of an entire new market to be met by socially motivated investors and for all this to stack up financially seems too good to be true. That is because it is not true. Contrast this with David Cameron’s vision of social investment in 2012: This is a self- sustaining independent market that’s going to build the big society.
But social investment as it is currently understood is both conceptually incoherent and largely impractical. That idea that social investment, offering market comparable returns, would significantly replace public sector grants or philanthropy for non-profit organisations is fanciful. Thus a national social investment market which the Boston Consulting Group predicted would reach a billion pounds by 2016 (does anyone ever hold these consultants to account?) is in fact a few tens of millions at most. And it is questionable if even that sum is genuinely social investment as the purists would define it. … So, once again, given the demonstrable incoherence of the Government’s social investment ambitions why was there no official reading the Prime Minister’s speech (or similar hype from many other ministers), and politely quoting Thomas Huxley; ‘I hate to ruin a beautiful hypothesis with an ugly fact but….’.
The Iraq War
The Chilcot Report on the Iraq War revealed that:
- No-one sought to record the reasons why the Prime Minster concluded that Iraq was in breach of resolution 1441, although this was an essential ingredient of the legal basis for the war,
- No-one ensured that Cabinet Ministers were provided with proper legal advice, and
- No-one challenged the Chancellor's determination deliberately to keep the Cabinet Secretariat short of resources and repeatedly refusing to give the military sufficient money for soldiers and equipment despite Blair, on his sofa, promising that it would be made available.
Chilcot principally blamed the Cabinet Secretary, Andrew Turnbull, whose defence was that he could not do every one of the components of the Cabinet Secretary job:
- Coordinating policy and ‘delivery – i.e. implementing decisions
- Head of the Civil Service, including reform
- oversight of propriety & ethics
- Oversight of intelligence and security
- Managing the Permanent Secretaries
- Acting as the Prime Minister’s principal policy adviser, including making sure that all the right people were involved and active.
Interviewed by Civil Service World in 2018, Andrew Turnbull said:
Blair had got to the end of his first term and he said “I need to reform public services we haven’t really achieved anything” so he made it very clear that the people contending to become cabinet secretary had to set out a prospectus of what we would do and reform of public service had to be a part of that. I concluded that there were three jobs of the cabinet secretary: managing day-to-day business and decisions taken; the performance and improvement of the civil service; and being the head honcho in the intelligence programme. In a post 9/11 world you couldn’t do all three: my suggestion was that the bit I should hive off was the post of intelligence and security coordinator. People were rather sniffy about it and said “well it meant you didn’t play much of a role in Iraq”. The reason I didn’t play much of a role in Iraq was that Blair wanted to run it himself.
Chilcot acknowledged that
“… the Prime Minister had given the Cabinet Secretary a very different agenda ... the new Cabinet Secretary was chosen explicitly on that basis..” the Cabinet Secretary could have "made a fuss" about that: "But it would have been at the direct expense of not being able to devote the time to sorting out reform and delivery across the government's agenda." But "The responsibility of the Cabinet Secretary to ensure that members of Cabinet are fully engaged in ways that allow them to accept collective responsibility and to meet their departmental obligations nevertheless remains."
I agree. The Cabinet Secretary cannot decide (or agree) to ignore one part of his job, no more than a private sector chief executive can sensibly choose to ignore sales, or cash flow, or production, or any other important part of his business. He should have delegated more effectively. He had plenty of talent to which he could have done so. And he should have resisted - if necessary to the point of resignation - Mr Blair's insistence that he look the other way.
Tom Bower, having read the Chilcot Report, thought that blame should be distributed much more widely amongst those who sat round the Prime Minister’s sofa:
“Blair did not single-handedly plot the road to war over 16 months. Nor did he deceive the dozens of special advisers, cabinet ministers, generals and senior civil servants who were engaged in the secret discussions. But those outside his Downing Street den were deceived. … [The PM’s foreign policy adviser David Manning] was also a doorkeeper who excluded Andrew Turnbull, the cabinet secretary, and David Omand, the permanent secretary responsible for security … Kevin Tebbit, the MoD’s Perm Sec, was also excluded.”
Higher Education Numbers
This was all slightly reminiscent of when, in 1999, Ministers and officials outside No. 10 were taken by surprise when Prime Minister Blair announced that 50% of young people should enter Higher Education (up from around 33%). No-one knew how the PM thought that the target might be achieved, nor whether he truly meant that half of all children should attend traditional university courses.
And no-one seems to have dared seriously challenge Chancellor (and later Prime Minister) Gordon Brown who had a dreadful and damaging relationship with Prime Minister Blair. This did catastrophic damage in the run up to the Iraq War (see above). Also, according to Daniel Finkelstein (The Times 10 August 2016) Treasury officials working for Chancellor agreed to present his Chief Secretary (a Minister in the same department) with false budget figures in case the Chief Secretary told Prime Minister Tony Blair what was planned.
It is not yet known whether officials challenged Prime Minister May’s decision to notify the UK’s Brexit from the EU under Article 50 without her apparently having any clear negotiation strategy nor having any chance of completing the necessary preparations before the two year deadline. The memoirs are going to be quite fascinating ...
Many an essay can no doubt be written about the damage done to the Chinese people as a result of their inability to speak truth to their leaders. Prominent examples include President Mao's Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, and the Chinese Government's initial failures to listen to those warning of the size of, and so tackle, the 21st Century SARS and Coronavirus epidemics. It was deeply sad that Dr Li Wenliang, who was silenced for trying to warn about the new coronavirus, was killed by the disease only weeks later.
And there were some signs that President Xi's dominance contributed to his problems by hampering internal debate, and so leading to his underestimating the staying power of the early-2020 Hong Kong protesters, and the public support behind them. Beijing academic Rong Jian was quoted as saying that "It's a paradox. It's precisely because Xi is so powerful that policy problems often arise - nobody dares disagree, and problems are spotted too late."
Notes - Speaking Truth in History
I don't suppose it is historically accurate, but drama resulting from failure to listen to sensible advice runs throughout Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra. One example is Cleopatra's lover, Mark Anthony, furiously dismissing General Enobarbus’ sensible advice that Anthony should not marry Octavia:
Thou art a soldier. Speak no more!’
To which Enobarbus replies
“The truth should be silent. I had almost forgot.”
Eighteenth Century Dunkirk Expedition
Robert Harvey records a lively 1793 argument between the Master-General of the Ordnance and Prime Minister William Pitt who wanted to send an expedition to seize Dunkirk. The army was unprepared and already overstretched.:
"I stated to Mr Pitt that I thought he was going far too fast in his calculations ... that very proper [as] his schemes and ideas were they were much too vast to be executed within anything like the time he talked of ... I told him that he would find himself mistaken and he said that I should find that he was not, and so we parted in great good humour.`'
The expedition was, of course, a complete disaster, incurring 10,000 casualties.
It is unrealistic to expect Ministers always to welcome advice. Even the best of them will have days when they simply want to be obeyed. But it is good if they can subsequently make amends. I quite like this story told by Robert Harvey about the Duke of Wellington:
'To his chief medical officer ...who had the temerity to differ with him on an issue he snapped: "I shall be glad to know who is to command the army, you or I?" However, he asked the good doctor to sit next to him that evening by way of atonement.'