Richard Wilson, the former cabinet secretary, warned yesterday that forcing the government to publish the NHS risk register could have unintended consequences:
It is deeply disturbing that the storm over the Health and Social Care Bill, now at its height in the House of Lords, may by a side wind do lasting damage to the Civil Service. What is at stake is the ability of officials to give their best policy advice to Ministers, and to do so in a private space, without being drawn into the political arena.
The tribunal’s ruling may, he argues, have extended the definition of freedom of information.
The technicalities are not really the point. What matters is that if the risk register were to be published, the precedent would reverberate across Government. Whitehall is watching, and rightly so. The Freedom of Information Act has already been harmful to the processes of government. This would be a major blow.
He has a point. It is one thing to provide data and statistics on government departments to journalists and other concerned members of the public. It is quite another to lay all internal documents open to public scrutiny.
Risk registers and other similar operational documents are not written with publication in mind. The language used will therefore be more frank than something which might go into a press-release. Taken out of context, these words could be used to whip up the sort of storm that carefully crafted press-releases are designed to prevent.
The whole point of risk registers and other internal reports is that they are supposed to tell it like it is. Lord Wilson’s fear is that if civil servants think that their words might one day be published they will be a lot less frank than they are now.
We have the best chance of being governed well if civil servants are able to give their best policy advice to their Ministers, frankly and on the basis of an impartial analysis of the options and the facts, in private. This applies to the risk register. We need Ministers to have before them documents which ‘speak truth unto power’ at those moments when they are on the brink of key decisions on a policy, or when they need to think through the risks of what they want to do.. There needs to be a private space where they can receive advice without worrying how it would look in the media or Parliament. These moments happen every day, every week, across government. The more important the issue, the more important that they receive the best advice.
If civil servants fear that their written advice may be published and used politically against the government they serve, they are bound with the best will in the world to write it differently, leaving out things which could be used as political ammunition. Worse still, they may not write these things down at all but give their advice orally. Oral advice has its place, but it is less considered, it is briefer and it may not be recorded. It is certainly not there for the Minister to ponder and read again when a meeting is over.
Some of you will say that people have a right to see these documents and that most are intelligent enough to understand the information within them. That may be true but it only needs a hostile and vocal minority to create a stink. You only have to look at the spurious spin and half-stories created by the tabloids and pressure groups to see the effect that even a little bit of deliberately misinterpreted data can have.
No one likes being at the centre of a media firestorm, even when they know the people fanning the flames are mischief-making numpties. If civil servants or other government advisers thinks there is the remotest chance of their words being published, they will pull their punches.
Publishing operational documents sounds fine in theory but I wonder whether our political culture is mature enough to deal with the material they contain. We already have a feverish atmosphere where any public sector story, no matter how silly or baseless, is seized upon and used to manufacture a mini-outcry. This hysteria is already heaping costs onto the public sector and creating an environment where managers are so scared of being beaten up by the tabloids that they daren’t invest £10k to save £100k.
In this atmosphere, the publication of management reports will only make civil servants even more risk averse, as they anticipate how their words might look in a newspaper article. With one eye on the Daily Mail, what would once have been frank advice will now be toned down. Forthright analysis and opinion will give way to anodyne, mealy-mouthed ambiguity. And we know what can happen in organisations when people dress their concerns up in non-committal language.
Lord Wilson’s views run counter to the prevailing political zeitgeist on both right and left. For public services, democracy, localism and empowerment are supposedly where it’s at now. He will probably be condemned as arrogant for ‘not letting the people decide’, or something like that. But if the publication of what have until now been internal operational documents becomes the norm, there will be unintended consequences.
Equivocal language and endless wordsmithing are the enemies of good decision-making and efficient management. Like most organisations, those in the public sector need more honest conversation not less. But if people think that their words might be published in a newspaper, wordsmithing is inevitably what they will do. Hours will be spent debating the nuances in each sentence. Lights will burn late as public servants fiddle about changing words here and there on Powerpoint slides. Just thinking about it is throughly depressing.
Lord Wilson’s warning is timely. It might sound like a great idea to force the government to publish the NHS risk register, thereby giving the opponents of its reforms more ammunition. But putting internal management documents into the public domain may set a dangerous precedent – one which could add yet another layer of complexity and inefficiency onto an already beleaguered public sector.
As the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for. For some, the publication of the NHS risk register is a useful tactical weapon but its collateral damage might be the frank and honest opinions of public servants.