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A plea for less 'honesty', more candour

By Nicholas Gruen - posted Friday, 1 March 2013


George Orwell was a stickler for plain and simple English in public discourse. He argued that one could escape some of "the worst follies of orthodoxy" by simplifying one's language.

"When you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

Last week the OECD felt it was time for a bit of pure wind. It headed a media release "Structural reforms more important than ever for a strong and balanced economic recovery". Really? Let's invert the rhetorical body language and leave the literal meaning in tact. The OECD thinks that structural reforms have always been less important than they are today. Less important in addressing the economic ailments of the 1970s? Less important in the industrial revolution? Enough said.

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This kind of verbal flatulence is everywhere. And it matters.

One of the South Australian Public Sector's "core values" is "honesty in all that we do and say" Really? Like any modern public service, South Australia's is necessarily part of the relentless spin that is eating our world. Government agencies are integral to 'performing' of government, helping politicians with tendentious sound bites proclaiming the wisdom of the government and, very often by implication, the folly of their opposition.

In doing so departments will gild the lily and routinely deploy managerialist euphemism. Arrangements will be 'improved' and 'enhanced'. 'Best practices' will be adopted which, we will be told, will make us more competitive, whatever more sober reflection might suggest. This will frequently extend to the routine petty deceptions involved in 'repackaging' previously announced policy and the spinning of details which might otherwise invite scepticism. Not for them the candour of Billionaire Chairman of the American conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett who regularly confesses to his shareholders, the "colossal mistakes made by your Chairman".

And the deceptions may not be petty. Where an officer is in possession of information of considerable import – as were senior defence officers during the 'children overboard' episode – they will often become complicit with the suppression of that information.

None of this is to gainsay the importance of honesty as a value both personally and for the public service. And indeed sanctions for inappropriate dishonesty are strewn throughout professional life. But that's my point. The real story is that dishonesty is so bad it's a criminal offence in some situations, and that it's not just advisable, but required practice elsewhere. And typically the most senior officers – who are called upon to 'embed' the stated values – are those who've best learned that the clarion call for "honesty in all we do and say" is altogether more freighted with organisational imperatives than more naïve souls might imagine.

Lists of values mean next to nothing as bland, contextless assertions. Just as economists are trained to understand how much people value something, not by what they say but rather by what they do – that is how much of one thing they're prepared to sacrifice to get something else – so people's values emerge from difficult choices between alternatives. Should respect count for more than honesty? Should tolerance and diversity be more important than reliability?

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Alas, even here we haven't made much progress, because values don't go into battle against each other as Platonic forms. They are demonstrated in a context. If I criticise a colleague's performance, that might reflect disrespect or the very opposite depending on a whole list of variables, many of which may only be dimly evident to outsiders, and remain hotly contested between different parties. Yet where there's disagreement, and some resolution must be found, it must often be imposed by those in authority, who will duly reference the official organisational values in their decision.

I suspect there's real merit in embedding such decision-making, in so far as humanly possible, in a deliberately cultivated awareness of its ethical dimensions. The Australian Public Service Commission's "Decision making model" offers a sensible guide of this kind. And the proposed values it proselytises to its charges seem more carefully hedged, less bumptious than the South Australian example referenced above.

Still, count me among the sceptics when it comes to any disembodied apex list of values from which appropriate behaviour is supposed to be deduced. For in our social and professional life we are forever trading off relative values, which live ultimately in the complex circumstances of individual actions, not in bland protestations, however bold. There's something creepy about calls from on high for "honesty in all that we do and say" while the routine deceptions of everyday life, both petty and otherwise, proceed apace.

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About the Author

Dr Nicholas Gruen is CEO of Lateral Economics and Chairman of Peach Refund Mortgage Broker. He is working on a book entitled Reimagining Economic Reform.

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