The importance of being insubordinate

23 June 2011

When Tim Harford came to speak at the Institute last week he emphasised the need for more experimentation in policy making. But the most interesting chapter in his 'Adapt' book is about the lessons we should learn from the US experience in Iraq. They suggest we should value dissent and challenge more.

Typical hierarchical organisations screen out dissident voices and value loyalty. Suppressing concerns is the route to the top – and those at the top like hearing their own opinions reinforced. First Lyndon Johnson on Vietnam, then Donald Rumsfeld on Iraq, took decisions in vacuums of agreement of their own making – with disastrous consequences.

Dissension in the ranks

But  ’Adapt’ shows  how insubordinate some of the US commanders on the ground were prepared to be when they realised that the mandated operating model was doomed to failure. They discarded their orders and tried something different based on local needs and circumstances. Their counter-insurgency strategies, at a time when the US Defense Secretary was refusing to admit there was an insurgency at all, formed the basis of the eventual moves toward restoring a degree of stability. The US Army never fully embraced the mavericks – but did eventually learn from them.

The lesson: the conventional attributes of the well-functioning big organisation – aligned team; clear big picture vision; organisation dedicated to following the leadership – can lead to some horrible mistakes.

The UK experience

The implication back home is that we will have better decision making if we challenge and have more space for dissenting views – and ministers confident enough to welcome that. The need to open up the policy process externally and to create more space and expectation of internal challenge are big themes in our Making Policy Better report.

Internal challenge is important – but this also raises the issue of who within the system has licence to dissent publicly. Last week, David Cameron slapped down the First Sea Lord for questioning the Navy’s capability to sustain the Libya operation. Sir Mark Stanhope has got off lightly compared to General McChrystal, who was sacked by Barack Obama for being too frank with a newspaper. Usually  the military are less public in their dissent or just call up the serried ranks of the recently retired. We have to wait for the memoirs – if publication is allowed – to see what diplomats like Sir Jeremy Greenstock or Sir Sherard Cooper-Cowles really thought about Iraq and Afghanistan.

Licensed dissenters

But within government there are some licensed dissenters. One is the Chief Medical Officer who is allowed to speak out on public health issues. As our policy reunion showed, his willingness to argue publicly for the ban on smoking in public places when it was not government policy was one of the key factors that made the government’s partial ban proposal unsustainable. We also give chief scientists more leeway to express public views than normal civil servants – and Sir David King used that platform to campaign actively for a re-examination of the case for nuclear power.

It is not just people who can play that role but institutions. The creation of the Office for Budget Responsibility allows public expression of what used often to be the private reservations of senior Treasury forecasters. But on other issues the scrapping of quangos has reduced the scope for licensed internal dissent and those that survive are on notice to keep out of the policy debate.

Serving officers taking on the government while a war is going on seems a step too far. But more (loyal) internal challenge in the military- and a positive embrace of differing views on less life and death issues – may prevent marching in unity toward policy debacles.

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Comments (3)

  1. [...] The importance of being insubordinate | Blog The lesson: the conventional attributes of the well-functioning big organisation –aligned team; clear big picture vision; organisation dedicated to following the leadership –can lead to some horrible mistakes. [...]

  2. Cameron’s virtuous U-turns on 28 June 2011 at 11:14 am

    [...] The Institute of Government blog has an interesting post on the value of insubordination. [...]

  3. Phillip Ward on 7 July 2011 at 5:05 pm

    Licensed dissenters get their license from their knowledge and command of the evidence. If we want more licenses we need to slow the pace at which civil servants move jobs so that they can show the command of their subject that will persuade ministers that they should be listened to and their views considered.

    Good point about the removal of some important quangos eg the Sustainable Development Commission and their capacity to pose an alternative view.

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