Communication
May 7, 2012

Speaking truth to power: A matter of imagination and courage

In my long experience watching and working with many ministers of various political stripes, I never encountered any who wanted to be lied to or who cared nothing for the public interest.

They are people too and, like the rest of us, they come with a variety of styles and personalities, and with behaviour partly shaped by their expectations, goals and feelings. I found some easier to interact with than others; I found myself liking some better than others; and I was instinctively more wary of some than of others. In one or two cases, I could sense an anxiety or fear in having to interact with me that I could not seem to overcome.

There is no doubt as well that my perceptions, presumptions and feelings seeped into my work and made my job easier or harder in specific cases. It is true nevertheless that my strongly-held view is – and has always been – that it is of the utmost naivety to presume that every interaction between a minister and a senior bureaucrat will be a zero-sum game that can be subsumed as Speaking Truth to Power.

Interactions at the political-bureaucratic interface can be thought of as roughly following a normal curve distribution. At one extreme they involve profound difficulties of principle (e.g., telling a minister that what she proposes is illegal and that proceeding would carry serious consequences). At the other, they involve common ground so that discussion and agreement is easy.

In between lie the vast majority of cases, and it is here, in my view, that the public service bears the burden of using imagination to square the circle of the minister’s objective or his understanding of the tradeoffs involved with the pursuit of the public interest, by suggesting workable ideas and approaches or by using language that resonates better, etc.

A couple of real examples may be helpful.

Common Ground
A new minister is appointed to an economic portfolio. Anxious to “right some wrongs,” he directs his department to revive a long-discredited and defunct subsidy program in a particular sub-sector to help reduce persistently high unemployment rates in a maritime region of the country.

It would be bad public policy – Canada can never be competitive in this sub-sector so re-starting the program would be throwing taxpayer money down a black hole. Simply obeying the directive and feeling reassured about his “foolish oversimplification” would be the easiest route of all. On the other hand, plucking up the personal courage to tell the minister and his senior staff that it won’t work and why it ought not to be undertaken – to speak truth to power – might seem to be the “right” and dutiful thing to do.

In this particular case, however, what really happened was that an imaginative senior executive invented an approach that was more likely to achieve the minister’s real objective of reducing unemployment by devising and proposing an initiative with broader scope instead. The result was the implementation of something more likely to be effective while also building/reinforcing trust at the political-bureaucratic interface. Speaking truth to power in this case might have demanded personal courage but it would also have undermined trust and lost the opportunity to develop good public policy.

It seems to me that the determination to find a way of following the intent of the minister’s direction, while also being more effective, demanded more creativity and hard work – and also involved no small personal risk – while representing serving the public interest at its very best.

A good discussion
A minister arrives in a portfolio as part of a newly elected government different from the political party in power for decades before. A controversial, multi-year initiative is coming up for renewal and a decision must be taken about extending it or not. There is some indirect evidence that it is achieving its objective. Advocacy groups for and against it are vocal, well organized and in large part split along ideological lines. Any decision is going to be a “hot potato.”

What happened in this case is that senior officials realized that in order for the minister and his staff to really understand the tradeoffs, the frame and language of the new government had to be used. As a result, instead of relating choices to the “collective good,” they talked in terms of crime reduction. This enabled the minister to reflect more objectively on the choices and, as a result, to make his decision based on a clearer understanding of the factors to be considered.

Using the frame and language of the former government and seeing what was required as speaking truth to power might have demanded personal courage, but it would have lost the opportunity to build trust with a new minister – instead possibly reinforcing the natural mistrust that comes with the change of a political party in power – and would have failed to provide advice in a way that enabled a good discussion of what was really at stake.

In this situation, my view is that enabling the best possible discussion by elected officials of the considerations involved and choices available did not mean picking between “telling them what you think” or “telling them what they want to hear.” Rather it was communicating as effectively as possible. It meant being non-partisan but politically sensitive, and required a significant amount of awareness of context and of self-knowledge.

Conclusion
In both of these cases, speaking truth to power could have been construed by senior bureaucrats as finding the courage to do their duty but, in effect, this would have amounted – albeit in a small way – to failing citizens and helping to erode public trust.

What they did – and what senior bureaucrats need to do in most cases – is to see what is at stake differently.

Starting every conversation at the political-bureaucratic boundary with a mindset that presumes that what is intended is for one party to confront the other – with politicians wanting to decide or act as they were elected to do and senior public servants acting as sentinels and ensuring the former do not put a foot wrong, accidentally or otherwise – turns the interaction into a zero sum game. It assumes that this is what speaking truth to power demands.

In these two examples, on the other hand, senior public servants saw their role first and foremost as one of collaborating. They worked to see how ways could be found to enable the public interest to be served by effectively marrying the public trust invested in ministers with that invested in public servants to use imagination and the special expertise of their profession to help. In effect, they used a frame of collaboration, not of confrontation and, as a result, transformed the interaction into a positive sum game.

If the political-bureaucratic interface is to work well, the greater burden lies with the deputy head (or other senior public servants), rather than with elected officials, to find effective ways to enable the highest quality conversation to take place so that choices can be made and actions taken for which the politicians will be held accountable at the end of the day.

Ministers are neither fools nor malevolent.
 
In most cases the real challenge for senior public servants is to stay focused on the burden of their office – to loyally serve the government of the day consistent with the laws of the land – by using their imagination to reframe the question so that it becomes a matter of collaboration not of confrontation.

Most reasonable Canadians would expect nothing less.

Ruth Hubbard is a senior partner with Inv

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