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

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

By Janet Hughes

28 Jan 2016

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.

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