“Speaking Truth to Power” and the Questions That Accompany It

“Public servants have a deep, professional duty to speak truth to power, and, if this doesn’t happen, it’s the government and ultimately Canadians who suffer.”

– Jim Mitchell

_________________________________________________________

Though beginning his career as a university lecturer in the 1970s, Jim Mitchell makes his name in Canada as a well-known and accomplished public servant. He’s worked in the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Privy Council Office and served as the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Board and to the Cabinet. Mr. Mitchell was responsible for the implementation of many government programs during his tenure as a senior public servant, including Canada’s Employment Equity Program.

“I’m probably most proud of the 1993 re-organization of the federal government,” he said, “but I have to say, I enjoyed everything I worked on.”

Presently Mr. Mitchell spends his time as a federal government policy consultant with Sussex Circle in Ottawa, a firm he founded. And, in his spare time, he speaks to public policy and governance students at the University of Toronto – well, he did last week.

On Sept. 30, Mr. Mitchell gave a lecture on “Speaking Truth to Power” to the school’s first-year graduate students, and then, led an informal chat in the evening about policy and leadership.

Speaking truth to power – now, that’s a phrase. All sorts of questions come to mind: What exactly does that mean? What’s it mean to a public servant? Can you really speak truth to power?

“Yes,” said Mr. Mitchell, “it is your duty to speak truth to power. It is one of the most fundamental duties of a public servant.”

Speaking truth to power, according to him, means giving correct facts to politicians, knowing when and where to speak up, respecting confidentiality, knowing how to encourage discussion and knowing when the discussion is over. He was careful in explaining that speaking truth to power doesn’t mean public servants are in possession of the truth, nor are they telling politicians what they ought to do.

Rather, speaking truth to power means public servants are bound to convey the facts as they know them, as well as any possible implications based on those facts. The relationship between senior public servants (i.e. Deputy Ministers, Assistant Deputy Ministers) and their minister, as well as the one between DMs or ADMs with their subordinates, should be one of being able to give advice, collaborate on ideas and receive advice contrary to your own.

This is the world Mr. Mitchell has worked in, and wishes to continue to work in. However, could there be signs something else is happening?

“There is the view that ‘politicians are in-charge of policy and public servants administer it,’” he pointed out.

Is this a prevalent view in Ottawa today? Can the traditional bi-lateral, Westminster model where information sharing has existed between politicians and administration be threatened?

The first-year public policy students debated these questions, and, the greater query of what speaking truth to power means during the Mitchell lecture and in their subsequent seminars. Real-life examples helped fuel the stirring discussion. None were more helpful than the recent long-form census debate, which prompted the resignation of Statistics Canada Chief Munir Sheikh, and the controversy surrounding former diplomat Richard Colvin in the Afghan detainee crisis last winter.

In the evening, among current students, alumni and faculty, Mr. Mitchell reassured the gathered public policy crowd that normal bonding was in fact occurring in the current federal system. There might be some lack of trust or misunderstandings of the relationship, but these aren’t new problems. Leadership in public policy is alive and ready for us “dynamic, energetic” individuals to capitalize on.

We have to remember all the things that have been successful in recent years, he said, which point to big opportunities for young leaders in public service. Canada’s new defense system, immigration reform and the successful implementation of the economic action plan can all be seen as positive policy accomplishments.

So ladies and gents, does our future look filled with collaborative relationships or does it look like one of following orders? Does it depend on the government of the day, on your minister or is could there be a general shift in the understanding of the administration-executive relationship?

One thing’s for sure about this profession,

“If you don’t have the courage to give serious advice, then you don’t have what it takes,” said Mr. Mitchell.

– By Margaret Cappa

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149 responses to ““Speaking Truth to Power” and the Questions That Accompany It

  1. After attending Mr. Mitchell’s speaking event the other day, a few ideas come to mind when I think of the challenges public servant leaders face today. Most of these ideas stem from my own personal experience working in government, while a few were found floating around the Internet. I’ll try and stay away from the obvious challenges (fiscal restraint, etc.).

    Information Overload:
    Decision making in the public service is guided by a constant stream of information – leaders are expected, for good reason, to have a working knowledge of relevant information and background context required for sound decision making.

    And like private sector leaders, public servants are increasingly bombarded from all directions by this quickening flow of information. Leadership involves an all-day, (almost) everyday commitment to the office. Leaders travel, learn, brief, meet with stakeholders as well as manage staff and their portfolios. The introduction of the “smart phone”, in particular, has REALLY connected leadership to their support staff and job 24/7.

    During my summer internship at the Ontario Growth Secretariat (OGS) I observed managerial information overload first hand – although they handled it exceptionally well. OGS management is responsible for a wide spectrum of knowledge covering economics, environmental principles and practices, health, stakeholder needs/demands, the political atmosphere related to initiatives, intergovernmental nuances, provincial legal regimes (planning legislation, environmental acts, building codes, etc.) and much more.

    Issue framing and the Media:
    Leaders are perpetually responsible for the framing of initiatives so that they align, compliment or take advantage of political realities/developments as they unfold. Initiatives need to be framed or reframed to expose their relevance to the business of the day.

    In this sense, the media is incredibly influential – an obvious but important point. And although it is important to understand what is being said in the media, there seems to be a real challenge to lead rather than bounce around given different stances taken by the media. In some cases, entire initiatives can take-off or drop-off given what is playing out within the political environment. I believe successful leadership identifies what is being said in the media but recognizes that media coverage is only part of the puzzle.

    Working horizontally and vertically:
    There exists a real challenge to working horizontally across ministries and vertically between different orders of government to solve complex, often interrelated problems. There are a number of reasons why public servants typically remain within their home silos, but increasingly the public is demanding better outcomes, which implies innovation, not reiteration “old” reasons as to why cooperation should not or cannot be permitted. Successful leaders facilitate better cooperation across ministries and governments, resulting in better products and strategies for the public good.

    Short political cycles:
    Leaders need to think about the long-term just as much as the short-term, which does not always happen. Initiatives are very much connected to short-term political objectives and there is a challenge for bureaucratic leaders to advise and encourage their political masters on the advantages of thinking longer-term for their constituency.

    Big problems:
    There are a number of challenges on the horizon that seem daunting – climate change, peak oil, deficit, infrastructure gaps, aging demographics, healthcare sustainability, etc. Leaders must recruit and invigorate staff to find solutions or moderate some of these issues – and in some cases, fast!

    Many people are going to want to be part of the answers to these problems (who wouldn’t want to be part of healthcare reform that sustains the public system?). The challenge I see for management is to tease this energy out of staff. I believe both Federal and OPS leaders must exploit this angle when engaging with staff by building the case for how important their work is for the greater good.

    The OGS does a good job with this. OGS staff work within an atmosphere in which their work is understood to be essential to the well-being of the Province and Canada – and so they should feel this way.

    Retirement and the loss of knowledge:
    As leaders leave the public service through retirement, huge knowledge and experience gaps threaten to open up. A senior servant may have years worth of established stakeholder and intergovernmental networks, insider information, etc. that adds significant value to their position and work. In this sense, it seems logical that there should be a system of knowledge sharing employed in which those exiting leaders mentor incoming replacements to mitigate the potential knowledge vacuum created by their leaving.

  2. Some food for thought…

    Two former Deputy Ministers, one writing in 1961 and the other in 1996, elaborating on their roles:

    1. Al Johnson, in 1961, insisted that “frank talk” is paramount, even if it may endanger a happy union between the career official and his political chief. He quoted Sir Warren Fisher that “the preservation of integrity, fearlessness, and independent thought and utterance in their private communion with ministers of the experienced officials selected to fill up posts in the service is an essential principle of enlightened government.”

    2. George Anderson, a deputy minister with Intergovernmental Affairs in the Privy Council Office, writing in 1996: “Overbearing advisers have a way of being cut down to size. The officials with most influence are those who are best attuned to the views and needs of ministers.”

    **source: Savoie, Donald J. “Searching for accountability in a government without boundaries.” Canadian Public Administration 47.1 (2004)

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