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.