Brace for a “post-truth” world, former DWP and MoD chief urges civil servants

Written by Jim Dunton on 3 February 2017 in News

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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Anon (not verified)

Submitted on 3 February, 2017 - 14:05
Civil service must brace itself for 'post-truth' world? The 'post-truth world' began long before the term became so common. We all know how the civil service should operate but that's not the reality. The way HMRC treat and bully staff is a case in point. They deal with bullying subjectively, not objectively, by disregarding the factual evidence and turning a blind eye. They treat and mismanage staff, including assessment of performance, based on their managers misguided personal beliefs and/or prejudices rather than on hard facts e.g. quality of work, performance stats etc. Yes it is an ugly and unprofessional way to go about business, but sadly the reality is some were operating in a 'post-truth world' long before the EU referendum and the civil service were not entirely immune to it. So, fact-checking is always vital but that has to include the civil service itself, as well as the political climate and the outside world.

Secret One (not verified)

Submitted on 3 February, 2017 - 14:16
Some of the unions have seemingly been trying to politicise the civil service for a number of years. The influence of PCS union and their reps within HM Revenue & Customs is not part of the solution to its current mess, but part of the problem.

Ld Elon (not verified)

Submitted on 3 February, 2017 - 16:45
Civil service helps build an maintain the governing lies, so yeah! Enough with that...

Post truth Adherent (not verified)

Submitted on 3 February, 2017 - 18:16
In fact a "post truth" mentality has existed for many years, it just wasn't labelled that. It has been known as "political correctness". Only the wilfully predisposed would have the arrogance to come up with such a term to condemn a perspective on life at variance with their own perspective and its associated paradigm. It is one thing to claim that your perspective of life is morally superior, and to advance reasons for it. It is quite another to claim that it is emphatically THE TRUTH, justifying such a claim by asserting that those who disagree have reinvented reality according to their emotional inclinations. From the other point of view, the same could be said of those who maintain that they object to "post truth" - they are equally liable to such a charge. Personally, I find such arrogance disturbing, especially from academics who are former civil servants.

Shahid mirza (not verified)

Submitted on 4 February, 2017 - 12:53
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”. Above statement raises many questions? ?? The expression of emotions are from persons to whom the capitalist system has not delivered. The so called trickle down effect is not working. The world wealth is in the hands of few. The capitalist system needs to be re adjusted. Any chance of having a referendum on this?

Winston Smith (not verified)

Submitted on 9 February, 2017 - 10:41
Post-truth? I'll need to check my Orwell lexicon. I clearly remember 'Newspeak' and 'Doublethink'...

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