Governments make mistakes – and some are avoidable

Lionel Zetter is Patron of Conservatives in Communications 

Prime ministers make mistakes for many reasons. One of them is because of their over-reliance on a handful of individuals for advice. Another is because No.10 is like a beehive, with ideas and instructions pulsing out from the centre, but with very little reverse-flow. And, of course, prime ministers feel that they need to project an image of strength and certainty, and therefore do not always encourage contradictory views. The result can be ‘group think’, and avoidable errors. 

The military has long been aware of the dangers of group think and they have sought to counter the tendency towards it by commissioning ‘Red Teams’ – small groups tasked with challenging existing or proposed plans or operations. After the catastrophe of 9/11 the US military formalised this concept by establishing the Army Directed Services Office. Other militaries, including the British, prefer to set up ad hoc Red Teams. 

This external scrutiny practice has now been adopted by big business. Company boards, like cabinets, are prone to group think and ‘confirmation bias’. Non-executive directors are often reluctant to contradict conventional wisdom for fear of jeopardising their chances of re-appointment. The solution is either to have a shadow board, or to commission a Red Team to feed critiques and alternatives directly to the chairman or CEO. 

Good lobbyists know that the best way to ensure the success of a campaign is to try from the outset to put yourself in the shoes of your opponents. Once you understand their thinking, you can anticipate their initial moves, and pre-counter their counter moves. You can also anticipate their key messages and attack-lines, and then seek to neutralise them in advance. Knowing your enemy is a pre-requisite of a successful campaign. 

For governments seeking to avoid making unnecessary mistakes through lazy group think there are several options. The prime minister can make him or herself open to advice from a wide range of sources. He or she can appoint a cabinet made up of politicians from different wings of the party, and with differing backgrounds and viewpoints, and can then encourage open debate. The problem here is that every cabinet minister represents a department or ministry and is therefore likely to have pre-prepared briefs and siloed opinions. So, the alternative, in order to obviate all these dangers is to set up a Red Team. 

In the UK government context, a Red Team would have to be small, and it would have to operate independently. It would have to be based outside of Westminster and Whitehall – possibly outside of London. It would have to be staffed by people who agree with the government’s underlying philosophy, but who are able to set aside their instincts in order to put themselves in the mindset of the opposition. And those individuals would have to be appointed on short fixed-term contracts, in order to ensure that they did not themselves become institutionalised. The Red Team would have to be led by somebody with an insatiable intellectual curiosity, who was not afraid to make controversial – and contradictory – recommendations. Importantly, that individual, like the heads of the three security services, would have to have unrestricted access to the prime minister. 

For minimal financial outlay the government would have at its disposal a team which could stress-test existing policy and suggest alternatives where they are found to be flawed. It could save the government from making avoidable mistakes, and ultimately save the nation vastly more than it cost to set up and run. It is time for the Government to consider the formation of a ‘Red Team’ in order to counter ‘group think’ and ‘confirmation bias’. Otherwise, a different kind of ‘red team’ might take its place after the next general election. 

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This piece was written for this website.

Damian Collins on “Rule, Britannia!”

Damian Collins

GUEST POST: Damian Collins is the Conservative MP for Folkestone and Hythe. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Nearly nineteen years ago, on September 15, 2001, I watched along with a group of friends the Last Night of the Proms, broadcast from the Royal Albert Hall to giant screens in London’s Hyde Park. This was just four days after the tragic 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US and the decision was correctly taken to change the running order to reflect the public mood in reaction to these terrible events. For the finale, before the singing of the hymn “Jerusalem”, we heard Michael Tippett’s “A Child of Our Time” and part of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, instead of the usual singing of “Land of Hope and Glory” and “Rule, Britannia!”

In recent years, I have been fortunate to attend the Last Night of the Proms in person, and I enjoy the music and traditions of this great spectacle and much as any of its enthusiasts. The event has become a national institution culminating in the performance of “Rule Britannia”, “Land of Hope and Glory” as well as “Jerusalem”. In fact, the decision to change the arrangement of the music in 2001 signified the strength of this institution, making it a significant act of reverence and respect.

There has been an argument in the last week about proposed changes to this year’s Last Night of the Proms, which will mean that “Rule, Britannia!” and “Land of Hope of Glory” will be played, but not sung. The reasoning for this is not entirely clear, and it is certainly not the result of a debate or consultation with viewers. There has been a suggestion that this is because some people regard the performance of these songs as out-dated and even that some of the words are offensive. People are of course entitled to their opinion, but so too are the millions of people who have enjoyed these performances over the years.

Great words and music that become part of our national culture, based on the significance people have attached to them over many years, often centuries, should not be lightly discarded.

Often, they have been rallying cries calling people to put personal interests aside for the greater good to their community and nation. The words of the French anthem, “La Marseillaise”, might seem somewhat out of touch to some modern ears, when it calls the people of France to arms against tyranny and to water the fields of the nation with the blood of the ‘impure’ foreign invaders. In the context of the time, the song was a rallying defence in the revolutionary wars of the late eighteenth century, but surely its greater significance today is as an anthem that has been a constant focal point for a nation through more recent triumphs and tragedies. “Rule, Britannia!” was written in 1740 by Thomas Arne as part of a musical about King Alfred the Great, England’s first king, who united a divided nation in defence against a foreign invader. The words of the song recount how Britain’s strength would mean that it could resist invasion from a tyrant, and indeed that power would be significant in our nation’s role in abolishing the slave trade in the nineteenth century. For 280 years it has been performed and enjoyed, invoking confidence in the future and a sense of shared and common purpose. These are qualities that are needed for all times, and particularly our own.

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for Damian’s website.