The Consequences of Speaking Truth to Power

Two recent separations of senior public servants, one a resignation and the other a dismissal, raise some important issues regarding the consequences of the key responsibility of senior public servants acting as advisors, namely speaking truth to power.

In 2010, Munir Sheikh, Chief Statistician of Canada, resigned over the cancellation of the compulsory long-form census. Sheikh had advised against making the long form voluntary, and it appeared that for him the final straw was that his political master, Industry Minister Tony Clement, publicly misrepresented his advice.

Earlier this week, Gary Webster, Chief General Manager of the Toronto Transit Commission, was dismissed by a 5-4 vote of his nine political masters. In his case, the precipitating incident was that at a TTC meeting held in public he gave a professional opinion supporting the expansion of light rail transit, thus contradicting Mayor Ford’s position that only subways should be built. The TTC held an in camera meeting concerning Webster, and Ford’s supporters, holding the majority, were able to dismiss him.

Both men, based on their professional training, spoke what they considered to be truth to power. In both cases, their political masters refused to accept their advice.

Sheikh had fulfilled his obligation as a senior public servant to give his best professional advice to his minister. Notice that he did this confidentially. When his advice was rejected, he could have stayed on to implement the voluntary survey, making it as representative as possible. I would assume that the public misrepresentation of his advice by his minister was what led him to feel that the relationship of trust was destroyed and hence decide to resign.

Undoubtedly Webster gave his advice about transit expansion to his political masters in private prior to the public meeting. Giving his advice at the public meeting was, in effect, a political act. He conceivably could have pulled his punches, dissembled, or even reversed himself. To his credit, he did not. He said in public what he said in private. One could argue that one purpose, perhaps the main purpose, of the public meeting was to create a justification for firing Webster.

It is nonetheless gratifying that Webster was dismissed without cause. To dismiss him with cause would have required the commissioners to assert that agreeing with the mayor about policy issues was a requirement of the Chief General Manager’s job, and even the mayor’s supporters did not make that assertion.

If we are now in an era in which some politicians are demanding “faith-based policy analysis” then it is gratifying that there are at least a few public servants who are willing to publicly reject politicians’ ideological conclusions that contradict professionals’ evidence-based policy analysis.

What have been the personal consequences for Sheikh and Webster? Sheikh is now an Adjunct Professor and Distinguished Fellow at Queen’s University. He was embraced by the professional community for whose values he put his career on the line. In Webster’s case, because he was dismissed without cause two years before his planned retirement, the financial consequences will be minimal. I hope that he does not slip into a silent retirement, but continues to speak out on transportation policy issues.

We may over the next while see more resignations of senior public servants who disagree, for professional reasons, with political decisions. Public resignations at least have the benefit of stimulating public debate. (One can think here of Keynes’s resignation from the Treasury over German reparations after World War I and his publication just a few months later of the book The Economic Consequences of the Peace.)

If public resignations of senior public servants are an expression of a professional consensus of opinion, then it would be appropriate for their professional communities to support them, in terms of both the issue and the provision of some kind of position, say at a university or a think tank, from which they can remain actively engaged. This certainly was the case for Sheikh and I hope it will also be the case for Webster and indeed for future senior public servants who are willing to speak truth to power, regardless of the immediate consequences for their careers.

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