James Frayne: Calling political opponents crazy is a risky business

Written by James Frayne on 23 March 2018 in Opinion

Politicians need to get better at recognising risk but many are too quick to write off views that veer from the mainstream

How can No 10 and government departments better anticipate political risk? It’s a question rarely asked within government, as insiders grapple with daily chaos. In Westminster, most advisers and officials look days ahead, weeks at most. It’s rare to devote time to thinking about long-term changes that might affect life. But these are the events that turn the challenges facing government on their head.

And so it is the shock of Brexit, the minority status of the May government, the election of Donald Trump, a further poisoning case linked to Russia, and so on, have all made different government departments reconsider strategies from first principles. 

If such shocks are regular and existential, why do governments not spend more time thinking about them? At one level, it’s easy to say such shocks are facts of life and can’t ever be predicted. And it’s certainly easy to be wise after the event and ask why people didn’t see events coming. But, given the stakes, officials and advisers have a duty to ensure they’re doing what they can to anticipate change. 

The overwhelming bulk of the solution is cultural. It’s fair to say there isn’t enough challenge to internal strategic assumptions within departments. Generally speaking, officials aren’t encouraged to pick holes in agreed strategy – particularly if it has the backing senior officials. There isn’t enough of a culture of intelligent scepticism or questioning. 

Achieving culture change is hard and Departments must look outside for guidance. American academic Philip Tetlock has been at the vanguard of advocates for change, with his project on political prediction. His books Expert Political Judgement and Superforecasting have achieved cult status within the civil service. Tetlock’s latter work, particularly, looks at the characteristics of those that make good forecasters and explains how ordinary mortals can get better

There’s another book being published that deserves at least as much attention as Tetlock’s and should establish similar cult status. To Dare More Boldly, written by American foreign policy analyst John Hulsman, and launched last night at Daunt’s Books, explains how the study and execution of political risk strategies have evolved down the centuries and provides a guide for those thinking about how better to analyse such risk. Hulsman’s work is somewhere between a short global history and a handbook for geopolitical practitioners. 

His final chapter provides what equates to an intellectual checklist for those in power. One of his lessons is particularly powerful: be careful who you write off as crazy. “For, to quote Shakespeare, there is almost always method to these groups' madness, intellectually foreign and irrational as they may appear at first glance. To decide a group is crazy all too often lets Political Risk Analysts off the hook, as such a characterisation implicitly means that analysis is simply impossible, as the group in question is not sane enough for rational analysis — the kind capable of being studied and assessed — to be made. This is almost always lazy nonsense. Analysts do not have to accept that a ‘crazy’ group’s goals will ever be met…”

Hulsman wasn’t referring to British politicians, advisers and officials when he wrote this, but might as well have been. The British political establishment often behaved as if the eurosceptic movement was made up of cretins; and nobody thought Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour was worth worrying about when Theresa May called a General Election in 2017 from the comfort of a double-digit poll lead. What’s true in Britain is true elsewhere: who in the United States thought that Donald Trump could win the election to become President? 

But we need these books to achieve more than cult status. We need the lessons in them to be embraced by the most senior officials within Departments and for the idea of political risk analysis to be formally built-in to the training of civil servants. That means educating new entrants in the art and science of risk analysis but also, practically, bringing in outsiders like Tetlock, Hulsman and others into Departments now to deliver short, sharp shocks to their thinking.

It’s hard to just drive culture change through simple willpower alone. There need to be other practical drivers to make this happen. At the moment, Governments do engage in “horizon-scanning”, although this is often divorced from the thinking of the upper-echelons of Departments. There are no doubt other tactical ideas that will help but, in my experience, two areas immediately spring to mind that might force people to consider the prospect of change more seriously.

The first of these is more systematic scenario planning, or "war gaming". This is a feature of those engaged in foreign and security policy but less so in other areas. These war games aren't about preparing people to respond to specific, worked out scenarios. Rather, they are about considering patterns of events, some likely, some less so, which force staff to think about their relative preparedness for risks that might occur and to design strategies to meet those risks. Those that run them in Departments like Defence should be encouraged to share their expertise across Whitehall. 

The other area might sound strange, given the assumption of ubiquity in politics: opinion research. People imagine Government politicians are driven by polling. Not at all. Deep research isn't that common - and certainly not in the area of risk analysis. While the polls on Brexit were ultimately mostly wrong, for example, they did at least point to a tight race and they should therefore have prompted deeper thinking about alternative outcomes than was ultimately the case. Qualitative research would certainly have revealed that "something was happening".

Of course, we’ll never be able to predict the future perfectly – not even close. But competent risk analysis helps organisations to think more formally about change and about their overall strengths and weaknesses. It makes organisations much more ready to adapt to change. That’s all we can hope for but that would mark huge progress.

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