Speaking truth unto Donald Trump – how can civil servants stop authoritarian leaders making poor choices?

Looking back on past government blunders, it’s hard not to think senior officials could have done more to persuade politicians to take better decisions, argues former senior civil servant Martin Stanley 

By Martin Stanley

22 Mar 2016

It is well accepted, in the UK at least, that powerful men and women should be advised by those who are willing to “speak truth unto power”. It is also well recognised that senior officials – and senior members of the armed forces, and senior executives – need to offer their advice in a way, and adopting a tone, that is best designed to ensure that the advice is accepted. 

But what does this mean in practice? There is some advice available for those lucky enough to work with politicians who will listen to advice, even if they don't always agree with it or accept it. Recent examples include Christopher Jary's Working with Ministers, and How to be a Minister written jointly by ex-minister John Hutton and ex-permanent secretary Leigh Lewis. But what advice might be given to those working with a politician with a more difficult personality?

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This question came strongly to mind when I read Professor Norman Dixon's On the Psychology of Military Incompetence in which he argues that many military blunders may be attributed to the authoritarian psychology of certain military leaders – and to the failure of their subordinates to challenge them effectively (or at all). He defines authoritarians as those who are less likely to:

“be able to put themselves in others' shoes, give full credit to an opponent's ability (likely calling them stupid, feeble and/or evil), accept criticism from below, accept blame, experiment, reconnoitre, learn from their own mistakes, accept information or advice which challenges their beliefs and assumptions, and be warm and sympathetic”

and are more likely to 

“have strong egos, be vain (but lack true self-confidence), blame a subordinate, be anti-intellectual, emphasise the importance of obedience and loyalty, take silence as consent, and dislike those who are 'odd' or 'different' – including those from a different social, educational and ethnic background”

There are probably very few senior politicians who display absolutely all of these traits, and none who are totally free from all of them. Accepting blame (as distinct from changing one's mind) does after all appear equivalent to committing political suicide. But it is not hard to think of a good number of strong characters who would score pretty highly in any test of authoritarianism. Donald Trump for a start, but maybe also Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage? Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown would also score well, I imagine.  

It is perhaps relevant that a recent Vox.com article noted that authoritarianism among American voters correlates strongly with support for Mr Trump. This is because, it is claimed, people who score high in authoritarianism value conformity and, when feeling threatened, turn to strong leaders who promise to do whatever is necessary “to protect them from outsiders and the changes they fear...Trump in turn embodies the classic authoritarian leadership style: simple, powerful, and punitive".

My question is, therefore, what advice would you give to senior officials who might be asked to work closely with an authoritarian prime minister or cabinet minister? Cabinet and permanent secretaries famously got off to a bad start with prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, and failed to establish an effective working relationship with Gordon Brown in either the Treasury or No.10. All three seem to have preferred to work with those who did not “push back” too hard – “courtiers” even. And it is hard to read The Blunders of our Governments by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, or Richard Bacon and Christopher Hope’s Conundrum: Why Every Government Gets Things Wrong without wondering whether very senior officials could not have done more to persuade their political masters and mistresses to take more sensible decisions. If not, then what were we employing them for?

So – go on then – imagine that you are lucky enough to be appointed Donald Trump's chief of staff or cabinet secretary. You are in pole position to stop him making some very serious errors. How would you set about persuading him to listen to you and maybe change his mind? 

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