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Loyalling Implementing the Idea of Fearless Advice

Wednesday, May 14, 2014
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Here's my entire hand for this post, laid on the table: the idea of Fearless Advice, Loyal Implementation makes me deeply uncomfortable.

The idea is that public servants provide advice, elected officials make a decision, and public servants then implement that decision, regardless of whether or not they agree (Nick has written in the past that the principle "isn't reserved for ministerial briefings" and applies throughout the public sector). It stems from this section of the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector:
1.2 Loyally carrying out the lawful decisions of their leaders and supporting ministers in their accountability to Parliament and Canadians.
1.3 Providing decision makers with all the information, analysis and advice they need, always striving to be open, candid and impartial.
However, the pithier version is well-entrenched in the minds of public servants. The phrase comes up everywhere, from office hallways to speeches from the Clerk of the Privy Council. However, compared to the source material, we've changed the order. But the real problem is that we think there is an order in the first place.


Theory and Practice

To be clear, I have zero issue with either of those two provisions. In fact, without them, the whole thing falls apart. Legitimately elected representatives make decisions based on the democratic logic that our system provides adequate information flows, contains sufficient checks and balances, and affords the opportunity to balance short- and long-term needs, regional and demographic demands, and public sentiment with substantive evidence.

However, the idea that fearless advice stops when loyal implementation starts is dangerous, and seems all too common ("they're sequential", I heard recently). We revisit the foundations for every policy and program eventually; when does a decision "end"? If new information comes available that impacts future actions, the past decision is a sunk cost, to be disregarded in weighing current options.


Fearless Advice and the Management Zeitgeist

The language that fills discussions about the future of the public service is of agility, continuous learning, and innovation - continuously exploring the adjacent possible of the new scenarios we enter (see: Where Good Ideas Go To Live And/Or Die):
Recent decisions are not exempt from lessons learned, iteration, and improvement, and as such should not be exempt from fearless advice. It's in the implementation that we learn many of the truths about a decision's impact.


Misplaced Confidence

The other issue with the sequential approach for advice and implementation is the degree of confidence that it places in our ability to communicate and decide.

We can write advice amazingly precisely and thoughtfully, but unlike a conversation cannot correct misconceptions when we see them in others' facial expressions and body language, which we all do daily. Anyone that has ever re-drafted their own writing knows it never gets to perfect.
And if we are delivering advice in person? In practice, all conversations are first drafts.

Or, one could point to the evidence that willpower is a depletable resource. Or that hearing about large sums of money affects our judgement about money. Or that people are still biased towards certain names. Or that being reminded of negative stereotypes hurts people's test performance. Or that being tired impairs our judgement as much as alcohol. Regardless, we have quirks. We can reasonably rely on people to be effective decision-makers. But we can't rely on them to be effective decision-makers at every moment, and as such shouldn't shut the door on fearless advice once given.


The Rudder Straight

This is all perfectly consistent with the Values and Ethics Code, adhering to both provisions. It's urging a course change, while dutifully keeping the rudder straight. It's when we stop urging that the system falls apart.