Government Digital Service programme director Janet Hughes: What if boldness were an explicit value of the civil service?

Written by Janet Hughes on 28 January 2016 in Opinion

Civil servants will always need to be honest, impartial, objective, and act with integrity – but we must make sure we don’t encourage passivity or inertia

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what it takes to get difficult and meaningful things done. Why it’s hard, exhausting and incredibly rewarding to make progress. What kinds of values and behaviours can help make a team in the civil service (or anywhere else) successful, productive and a complete joy to work with compared with one that isn’t.

The civil service values (impartiality, objectivity, integrity and honesty) are necessary, of course, and a team can be pretty horrible and destructive if you don’t see those values in clear abundance. But I don’t think they’re sufficient if you want to actually get things done.

The limitation of these four values is that they allow too much room for passivity, timidity and inertia. A person could make a reasonable claim to have lived all those values without ever doing anything at all. In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking that the safest thing, if you want to be sure of sticking to all those values all the time and never have any of them stretched or challenged, is to do as little as possible in the way of real, messy, difficult, challenging work.

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There’s a missing ingredient. Yes, we need to be honest, impartial, objective and act with integrity. But we also need to be bold.

I’ve always been drawn to boldness. I find boldness in others inspiring, infectious, empowering, creative and meaningful. I want to spend time around bold, honest, open people. I want to be inspired and empowered to boldness myself. I know I am at my best when I can feel the weird whoosh of terror and relief that comes from real, heartfelt boldness. And I don’t think you can lead a great team, or transform organisations or services without a healthy amount of boldness.

It seems like it’s rare for boldness to be explicitly encouraged or celebrated in organisations. Often it’s actively discouraged, squashed or derided. I don’t know why that is, given how much genius, power and magic there is in it.

What it means to be bold

We sometimes call on ourselves and each other to be bold, but we don’t talk much about what it really means or what it takes for someone to make the leap just once, several times or every time they get a chance. I’ve been thinking about what boldness means to me and the teams and communities I’m a part of, so I thought I’d share where I’ve got to.

Maybe it’s easier to start with what’s sometimes called bold but isn’t. Our boldness can’t be based on nonsense, on being brash, loud, pushy, contrary, in-your-face, pig-headed and entitled. That’s not boldness, that’s arrogance.

Boldness is not the same as JFDI ("Just Effing Do It"); it’s purposeful, not reckless or careless. And I don’t think it’s the same as bravery – there’s creativity, imagination and a sense of wider purpose in boldness that isn’t quite captured in bravery.

Being bold means bringing your whole self to the situation and engaging fully with it. It involves openness, optimism and a commitment to something bigger than yourself.

It means staking your own credibility, capital or even safety or security on an action because you believe it’s right and true. It involves taking a risk based on a credible belief that you’re right, even if nobody else agrees with you at the time.

The risk might be big or small, depending on the context and the person. It’s a highly subjective idea – the same action might be perceived as more or less bold (or arrogant) by different people depending on their own point of view.

It might be overcoming nervousness to speak in front of an audience about something you really care about. It might be speaking truth to power, questioning the way things are done or going against the consensus view about the best way forward in a high-pressure situation. Maybe it’s naming and acknowledging something that everyone knows but is too afraid to face up to or talk about.

What does it take for someone to be bold in any given situation?

At a certain point in time, something somehow overwhelms your fear and propels you forward. Maybe you’ve been positively inspired. Maybe it’s frustration or an overwhelming sense of injustice, and an inability to contain it any longer. Either way, to be truly bold the action you take has to be constructive – it’s not just about being angry and lashing out.

It helps to having a feeling of support and momentum behind you, and energy that can carry you through. The knowledge that if only others in the situation felt able to speak up or act too, they’d agree. Or that if you fail, you have a network that will forgive you, support you and help you recover.

Practice definitely helps. You learn that fear isn’t always an accurate measure of danger, and that after trepidation there often comes great relief and reward.

Your environment helps too, no doubt. Do you work somewhere where being bold is talked about at all? And if it is, is it a rallying cry for everyone to be the best version of themselves, or is it code for “shut up and stop rocking the boat”?

(“That’s a bit bold,” said someone early in my career after I had spoken up in a large-ish meeting to ask if we could change the word “manpower” to “people” in a formal HR document. “I will watch your career with interest” – he said – “if you’re going to be bold like that.” He didn’t mean it in the good way. He meant: “Shut up, don’t question things, just do as you’re told.”)

How can organisations encourage and reward boldness?

Does your organisation provide an environment that explicitly or implicitly encourages and rewards boldness? What does that look like, in reality?

What if boldness were an explicit value of the civil service, along with integrity, impartiality, honesty and objectivity? How would we behave differently? What permission would that give us? What training, support and feedback would we offer each other, and how would it be different to what we do now?

I’d like to learn more about this, read more about it and talk to other people who are interested in the idea of boldness and the practice of doing it well. I’d love to hear from you if you’re reading this and have some thoughts to share.

Author Display Name
Janet Hughes
About the author

Janet Hughes is a programme director at the Government Digital Service, part of the Cabinet Office. She tweets at @JanetHughes 

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Helen Hardy (not verified)

Submitted on 28 January, 2016 - 14:54
Thanks for this Janet, really interesting stuff - I have experienced the joy of being bold and of witnessing boldness, but rather too seldom and would love to see and feel it more. This reminded me of this blog - These 10 questions for me point in the direction of boldness (and very quickly pin me down on some stuff I could be changing...): What are you doing that's difficult? What are you doing that people believe only you can do? Who are you connecting? What do people say when they talk about you? What are you afraid of? What's the scarce resource? Who are you trying to change? What does the change look like? Would we miss your work if you stopped making it? What do you stand for? What contribution are you making?


Submitted on 29 January, 2016 - 14:05
Boldness is important for innovation and learning and Garry Hamel in 'What Matters Now' identifies the difficulty of developing this in the civil service: “Throughout history, managers have seen their primary task as ensuring that employees serve the organisation's goals - obediently, diligently, and expertly. Now we need to turn the assumption of "organization first, human beings second" on its head. Instead of asking, how do we get employees to better serve the organization, we need to ask, how do we build organizations that deserve the extraordinary gifts that employees could bring to work? To put it bluntly, the most important task for any manager today is to create a work environment that inspires exceptional contribution and that merits an outpouring of passion, imagination, and initiative." A framework I have used with good effect is '21st Century Talent Spotting - Why potential now trumps brains, experience, and competencies’. The Problem in the past few decades organizations have emphasised "competencies" in hiring and developing talent. Jobs have been decomposed into skills and filled by candidates who have them. But 21st-century business is too volatile and complex – and the market for top talent too tight - for that model to work anymore. What Matters Now 21st Century Talent Spotting

DB-F (not verified)

Submitted on 1 February, 2016 - 13:26
A great piece which echoes some of the sentiments from last week's Government Finance Conference - where the topic(s) of how we encourage and nurture (and provide the right environment) for appropriate use of judgement and levels of risk-taking came up often. It is becoming clear that we could perhaps benefit from being bolder in our outlook and actions and perhaps a bit less risk-averse in our ideas and in delivery (something we, arguably, laud our 'private sector' counterparts for doing...) if we really want to transform public service provision and the management of a complex beast like government. However, until we are willing to both tolerate and learn from failure and reward people for being bold enough to take complex, and sometimes risky decisions, we are unlikely to stimulate the sea change required.

Irene Bocchetta (not verified)

Submitted on 1 February, 2016 - 14:20
Thank you Janet. I read your article with great joy. It is so refreshing and a topic close to my heart. I love the word boldness. It is strong and powerful and full. It is confident. Perhaps we don't see enough boldness in the civil service because we don't feel confident enough to be bold. The feeling to 'toe the line' and 'keep your head down' still prevails, notwithstanding great strides from different areas up and down the civil service, to encourage the opposite. There is still a lot of work to do to encourage ourselves and eachother that it is a safe place to be bold and to ask questions. I am mindful to work in this way even if it feels uncomfortable at times. I beleive we must be the change we wish to see.

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