When Ministers are right to fire advisors

nutt_bbcnewI think it’s safe to say that these days I rarely agree with the behaviour of Government Ministers.  Part of it is a knee jerk reaction (:) ) and part of it is that Government Ministers rarely seem to exhibit a capability in their jobs above that of Jim Hacker – without the aid of Sir Humphrey.  But, much to my dismay, I found myself agreeing with the Home Secretary with regard to the firing of his Drug’s Advisor, Professor David Nutt.  Now,  I have no intention in getting in to the rights and wrongs of Cannabis classification or whether illegal drugs are more dangerous than alcohol and tobacco.  My thoughts here are on teh roles and responsibilities of advisers.

It’s inevitable and highly desirable that Ministers will have access to a wide range of advisers to help them and their departments come to policy decisions.  The role of any advisor is to advise;  that statement may appear to be a tautology but it seems that some advisers believe their role is to actually make policy.  It isn’t.  When a Government policy fails, it’s incumbent on the Minister to fall on his or her sword.  (OK…that’s how it should be, but I appreciate that that doesn’t happen much these days!)  the advisor responsible for giving the advice that led to a policy being made is almost certainly going to be unknown to the public.  The process is that the advisor gives their advice, the Civil Servants and the Ministers and Secretaries chew it over, and eventually the Minister decides and takes it to Cabinet for approval.

It’s similar to some of the consultancy work I do – I (as Advisor) am briefed on a problem by my client (Minister).  I advise the client to the best of my professional abilities, and the client then takes the choice to go with my recommendations as given, implement part of what I suggest or use my consultancy report to line his cat’s litter tray.  I obviously hope that it won’t be the latter.

But that’s the prerogative of the client, whoever they are – to take or not to take your advice.  Whilst you’re on the payroll you may argue your case strongly within the confines of the organisation, but if you don’t get what you want you have two – and ONLY two – choices.  Shut up or quit.

That is all – if you feel very strongly about your advice not being taken then the only intellectually honest and principled thing to do is to quit the job.  As a consultant I’ve done it maybe once or twice in 20 odd years.  My own thoughts were that there was no point in me being paid and giving advice if it was never taken, I felt I was just taking money for nothing, so I quit.

What you don’t do is mouth off to teh media or outside the organisation in a way that’s likely to get attention whilst you’re still employed.  That is, in my opinion, disloyal.

For me, the role of an advisor is like that of an Executive Officer on a ship.  You advise the Captain, you may even question the Captain’s decision, but once that decision has been made you fulfill whatever duties you have in making that decision work.  If you can’t, then ask for a transfer or ersign your commission; don’t try and organise a mutiny.

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