Brace for a “post-truth” world, former DWP and MoD chief urges civil servants
Whitehall insider-turned-academic Richard Mottram says EU referendum and its aftermath underscores the uphill struggle of speaking truth to power
Former Ministry of Defence and Department for Work and Pensions permanent secretary Sir Richard Mottram has warned that the civil service may need to clarify its role to cope with the “post-truth” climate typified by the EU referendum debate and its aftermath.
Mottram, who is now a visiting professor at the London School of Economics’ Department of Government, said a world in which objective facts were less influential than expressions of emotion and personal belief was challenging civil servants’ ability to “speak truth unto power”.
In an online post for the LSE, Mottram said last month’s furore over the resignation of UK permanent representative to the EU Sir Ivan Rogers exposed widespread misstatements of the role of civil servants, some of them made by former cabinet ministers.
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Rogers’ leaked resignation letter urged staff not to shy away from telling “uncomfortable” truths to ministers in the “difficult moments” ahead — a moved that prompted former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith to say the job of the civil service was “to deliver on the will of the British people”.
That assertion was disputed by Mottram, who stressed that while officials had to “deliver the policies of the government and to do so with commitment regardless of […] personal opinions and preferences”, they were not “starry-eyed, Europhile fanatics of the imagination of some ardent Brexiters”, and instead had a duty to weight up expert evidence.
“Advice comes in many forms, subjective and objective — the civil service’s role is to offer the latter,” he wrote.
“Much civil service advice comes from experts, whether lawyers, doctors scientists, engineers, and many other professions. They face particular challenges in getting their voices heard and listened to in normal times. In a world in which ‘People have had enough of experts’ (Michael Gove’s assertion during the referendum campaign), this may have become even harder.”
Mottram said the decision of Oxford Dictionaries to choose “post-truth” as its international word of the year underscored the gravity of the challenge currently faced by civil servants.
“For ‘speaking truth to power’ to have any effect, power has to be interested in listening, in an active, two-way process,” he said.
“This is relevant to both policy development and how policies are explained and presented.
“With the rise of media-driven government, tensions have become more acute between the civil service’s obligation to support factually based government pronouncements and ministers perceived need to get their message across.”
Mottram said that although prime minister Theresa May had stressed in an interview last year that she wanted “the best possible advice” rather than what civil servants thought she wanted to hear, he questioned whether the requirement would apply across all departments in relation to Brexit.
The former MoD chief asked: “In a post-truth, alternative-facts climate, do civil servants need to strengthen their role as ‘fact-checkers’ and does this role also need to be made more explicit?
“But would a move in this direction run a significant risk of ministerial frustration with being told what they can and cannot say, leading to an increasing desire to politicise the civil service?”
Mottram served as permanent secretary at the MoD from 1995 to 1998, when he moved to the Department for Transport, Environment and the Regions.
He subsequently served as permanent secretary at the Department for Work and Pensions before moving to the Cabinet Office, where he was chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee before retiring in 2007.
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