Jane Dudman: Who needs experts? We all do
Prime minister Theresa May can’t afford to shut herself off from good, impartial advice
Who, now, would ask for Sir Philip Green’s advice on buying so much as a paperclip? The disgraced retail tycoon turned out to be such a great businessperson that in February he had to pay £363m to the pensions regulator, after the collapse of BHS in 2016 led to the loss of 11,000 jobs and left a £571m pension deficit.
How different things were in 2010, in the early days of the coalition government. To the new minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude, Green seemed just the chap to advise the hopelessly uncommercial civil service about efficient procurement. Accordingly, Green turned in a report in October 2010 that said if the government were a business, it would fail.
Seven years on, and lo – the civil service is still here running the country, while Green, having bought BHS for £200m and sold it for £1, struggles to hang on to his knighthood.
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With examples like this, it’s little wonder if ministers and civil servants tend to be sceptical about bringing in so-called expertise.
Since the European referendum vote, and Michael Gove’s famous declaration that the people of this country “have had enough of experts”, the anti-expert rhetoric has grown even louder.
Behind the doors of No 10 as Theresa May plans her Brexit negotiations, are the two fiercest gatekeepers in recent Downing Street history. May’s advisers, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, were recently described as the street’s Scylla and Charybdis. Sir Andrew Cahn, the former chief executive of UK Trade and Investment, and a civil servant for more than 30 years, was the man who described them thus, at a recent Institute for Government debate on the Brexit negotiations. For Cahn, the apparent determination of the present administration to keep at bay any advice from, say, people who might have voted remain in the EU referendum, is short-sighted and unhelpful. “We should be getting in people with real expertise,” said Cahn, who added that what looked like a “dogmatic philosophy” was interfering with that process
It might seem obtuse, even perverse, of the government to let dogmatism get in the way of advice from experts. But looking back over the years, you can see that there’s nothing particularly new in May’s approach, even if she is taking the whole thing a bit far.
Even some of the savviest senior civil servants have had to admit that they have in the past assumed that politicians would fall upon advice from experts with cries of gratitude.
One of the sharpest Whitehall operators in the Tony Blair era, and a self-confessed champion of rational advice, was Geoff Mulgan, director of Blair’s Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit. But even Mulgan, looking back, was forced to acknowledge guilt in this respect, writing that “it’s not enough to bring clever people into government, or for advice to be rigorous and rational”. Learning how and when to give advice is crucial – and, noted Mulgan, “ it matters a lot who gives the advice – and whether they are trusted and reputable”.
It’s easy to think this is all about political obstinacy or Whitehall stuck-upness, and plenty of people point to both. But in fact, it’s a very human characteristic. Most of us tend to dislike being told something we didn’t know. It’s a rare and cherished boss who can openly take on information from juniors, or external experts, or those whose message is different from our own view of the world. Oddly, it’s part of the reason why expensive consultants are often used, in the face of common sense. Why pay people to borrow your watch and tell you the time? At least, by footing the bill, you feel more in control.
Of course, no-one likes to think of themselves as irrational. May and her team have, no doubt, excellent reasons for feeling uncertain about allowing former Remainers to shape, in any small way, the thinking or the negotiation plans for what’s going to be a tough Brexit time. And it is easy for any government to think that negative voices are simply Cassandras, blocking good ministerial intentions. Maude, again, provides a good example: anyone who stood in the way of his “modernising” reforms was, as he might have put it if he’d thought of the phrase ahead of the Daily Mail, a saboteur. If you weren’t with him, you were perceived as most certainly against him.
But this is indeed shortsighted. Expertise continues to be valuable. And even if you wouldn’t trust Green with a business or a pension scheme, his report, simplistic though it was, managed to point to some uncomfortable truths about a lack of knowledge within Whitehall about what it was spending.
So even the most tarnished expert may tell us something we need to hear. And being without knowledgeable, sceptical or doubting voices leaves us all exposed. As a vicar’s daughter, May should be well aware of the theological importance of doubt.
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