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The dangers of groupthink in a crisis

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In democratic government, the general rule is supposed to be simple: advisers advise, ministers decide, civil servants do.

In the UK system, that emerged fully at the beginning of the 20th century, the civil service were both the advisers and the doers.

Top civil servants told ministers what options there were to achieve what ministers wanted. Ministers chose, and the civil service went off and “made it so”.

Lots of people challenged this cosy and rather naïve view, not least the ever popular ‘Yes Minister’ series. In reality there have always grey areas on the boundary between elected politicians and permanent civil servants.

The coronavirus crisis has highlighted, not for the first time, a different but related problem – what is the role of expert scientists in advising ministers?

The naïve view is that people like the Chief Medical Office and the Chief Scientific Adviser simply ‘speak truth to power’. Ministers then claim they are being guided exclusively by “the science” or “the evidence”. It is, of course, a polite fiction.

The reality is that the CMO and CSA are civil servants. I am sure they give their candid views in private. But in public, everything they say is a compromise between the science and the politics. How big a compromise we don’t know.

And they are not the only advisers talking to ministers. We also have SPADs – special advisers.

There are usually about a hundred of these SPADs across government – political appointees with a special status. And some of them are very powerful. And unlike the CMO or CSA, they do not necessarily have to have any professional qualifications to be appointed.

So in the current situation ministers, including the Prime Minister, have three sets of distinctly different advisers: permanent civil servants, specialist scientists and special advisers.

What might go wrong in situations like this?

In their magisterial study of ‘the blunders of our government’ Anthony King and Ivor Crewe gave us some answers. Their conclusions from 12 case studies were that what characterises our British system of central government policymaking is a ‘deficit of deliberation’.

It is simply too closed, too impetuous, too ill-thought through, too unaccountable and with far too few checks and balances to ensure ideas are ‘stress tested’ before they are rolled out.

Despite the range of advisers, King and Crewe show how, in case after case, a small bubble of ministers, civil servants, experts and SPADs developed ‘groupthink’ on an issue.

Even when people outside the bubble were issuing warnings, they were seen as ‘gloomsters and doomsters’, as the Prime Minister would say.

For people inside the bubble, breaking ranks is a very difficult decision. Even when they do have rebel thoughts they are under pressure not to voice them too openly, for fear of being excluded from the inner circle. They will reason that it is better to be inside, where you can at least exert some influence, than outside where you have none. I know, I have been in that position myself.

It appears that government decision-making over Covid 19 has been done in a very small, closed, circle, at least initially. So it may be groupthink that has caused the UKs initial policies to be so different from other countries responses and World Health Organisation’s advice?

As for “the science” and the scientists in government. They are not infallible, especially not in a fast-evolving situation in which there are many unknowns. And they will be under huge pressure to maintain a united front, even when they have doubts, if they do have any.

One thing is almost certain though – an open, transparent and deliberative government, which welcomes challenge and debate, has a better chance of doing the right things than a closed, dogmatic, groupthink, one.

This post first appeared on the Public Interest blog.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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You may withdraw this consent at any time by <a href="mailto:[email protected]">emailing us</a> or clicking “unsubscribe” at the bottom of our emails).</label> </li></ul></div></li><li id='field_2_6' class='gfield gform_validation_container field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_visible' ><label class='gfield_label' for='input_2_6' >Comments</label><div class='ginput_container'><input name='input_6' id='input_2_6' type='text' value='' autocomplete='off'/></div><div class='gfield_description' id='gfield_description__6'>This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.</div></li> </ul></div> <div class='gform_footer top_label'> <input type='submit' id='gform_submit_button_2' class='gform_button button' value='SUBSCRIBE' tabindex='76' onclick='if(window["gf_submitting_2"]){return false;} if( !jQuery("#gform_2")[0].checkValidity || jQuery("#gform_2")[0].checkValidity()){window["gf_submitting_2"]=true;} ' onkeypress='if( event.keyCode == 13 ){ if(window["gf_submitting_2"]){return false;} if( !jQuery("#gform_2")[0].checkValidity || jQuery("#gform_2")[0].checkValidity()){window["gf_submitting_2"]=true;} jQuery("#gform_2").trigger("submit",[true]); }' /> <input type='hidden' name='gform_ajax' value='form_id=2&amp;title=&amp;description=&amp;tabindex=69' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='is_submit_2' value='1' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_submit' value='2' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_unique_id' value='' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='state_2' value='WyJbXSIsIjg1ZGYwZWM3YzAyMDRmYTcyZDYxNmIwMWJiNmFhYzVhIl0=' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_target_page_number_2' id='gform_target_page_number_2' value='0' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_source_page_number_2' id='gform_source_page_number_2' value='1' /> <input type='hidden' name='gform_field_values' value='' /> </div> </form> </div> <iframe style='display:none;width:0px;height:0px;' src='about:blank' name='gform_ajax_frame_2' id='gform_ajax_frame_2' title='This iframe contains the logic required to handle Ajax powered Gravity Forms.'></iframe> <script type='text/javascript'>jQuery(document).ready(function($){gformInitSpinner( 2, 'https://radixuk.org/wp-content/plugins/gravityforms/images/spinner.gif' );jQuery('#gform_ajax_frame_2').on('load',function(){var contents = jQuery(this).contents().find('*').html();var is_postback = contents.indexOf('GF_AJAX_POSTBACK') >= 0;if(!is_postback){return;}var form_content = jQuery(this).contents().find('#gform_wrapper_2');var is_confirmation = jQuery(this).contents().find('#gform_confirmation_wrapper_2').length > 0;var is_redirect = contents.indexOf('gformRedirect(){') >= 0;var is_form = form_content.length > 0 && ! is_redirect && ! is_confirmation;var mt = parseInt(jQuery('html').css('margin-top'), 10) + parseInt(jQuery('body').css('margin-top'), 10) + 100;if(is_form){jQuery('#gform_wrapper_2').html(form_content.html());if(form_content.hasClass('gform_validation_error')){jQuery('#gform_wrapper_2').addClass('gform_validation_error');} else {jQuery('#gform_wrapper_2').removeClass('gform_validation_error');}setTimeout( function() { /* delay the scroll by 50 milliseconds to fix a bug in chrome */ jQuery(document).scrollTop(jQuery('#gform_wrapper_2').offset().top - mt); }, 50 );if(window['gformInitDatepicker']) {gformInitDatepicker();}if(window['gformInitPriceFields']) {gformInitPriceFields();}var current_page = jQuery('#gform_source_page_number_2').val();gformInitSpinner( 2, 'https://radixuk.org/wp-content/plugins/gravityforms/images/spinner.gif' );jQuery(document).trigger('gform_page_loaded', [2, current_page]);window['gf_submitting_2'] = false;}else if(!is_redirect){var confirmation_content = jQuery(this).contents().find('.GF_AJAX_POSTBACK').html();if(!confirmation_content){confirmation_content = contents;}setTimeout(function(){jQuery('#gform_wrapper_2').replaceWith(confirmation_content);jQuery(document).scrollTop(jQuery('#gf_2').offset().top - mt);jQuery(document).trigger('gform_confirmation_loaded', [2]);window['gf_submitting_2'] = false;}, 50);}else{jQuery('#gform_2').append(contents);if(window['gformRedirect']) {gformRedirect();}}jQuery(document).trigger('gform_post_render', [2, current_page]);} );} );</script><script type='text/javascript'> jQuery(document).bind('gform_post_render', function(event, formId, currentPage){if(formId == 2) {if(typeof Placeholders != 'undefined'){ Placeholders.enable(); }} } );jQuery(document).bind('gform_post_conditional_logic', function(event, formId, fields, isInit){} );</script><script type='text/javascript'> jQuery(document).ready(function(){jQuery(document).trigger('gform_post_render', [2, 1]) } ); </script>
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[gravityform id=5 title=false description=false ajax=true tabindex=64]
<div class='gf_browser_unknown gform_wrapper' id='gform_wrapper_5' ><div id='gf_5' class='gform_anchor' tabindex='-1'></div><form method='post' enctype='multipart/form-data' target='gform_ajax_frame_5' id='gform_5' action='/opinion/the-dangers-of-groupthink-in-a-crisis#gf_5'> <div class='gform_body'><ul id='gform_fields_5' class='gform_fields top_label form_sublabel_below description_below'><li id='field_5_5' class='gfield gravity_head gfield_html gfield_html_formatted gfield_no_follows_desc field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_visible' ><h3>Get emails</h3></li><li id='field_5_1' class='gfield gfield_contains_required field_sublabel_hidden_label field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible' ><label class='gfield_label gfield_label_before_complex' >Name<span class='gfield_required'>*</span></label><div class='ginput_complex ginput_container no_prefix has_first_name no_middle_name has_last_name no_suffix gf_name_has_2 ginput_container_name' id='input_5_1'> <span id='input_5_1_3_container' class='name_first' > <input type='text' name='input_1.3' id='input_5_1_3' value='' aria-label='First name' tabindex='65' aria-required="true" aria-invalid="false" placeholder='First Name*'/> <label for='input_5_1_3' class='hidden_sub_label screen-reader-text'>First</label> </span> <span id='input_5_1_6_container' class='name_last' > <input type='text' name='input_1.6' id='input_5_1_6' value='' aria-label='Last name' tabindex='67' aria-required="true" aria-invalid="false" placeholder='Last Name*'/> <label for='input_5_1_6' class='hidden_sub_label screen-reader-text'>Last</label> </span> </div></li><li id='field_5_2' class='gfield gfield_contains_required field_sublabel_below field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible' ><label class='gfield_label' for='input_5_2' >Email<span class='gfield_required'>*</span></label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_email'> <input name='input_2' id='input_5_2' type='email' value='' class='large' tabindex='69' placeholder='Email*' aria-required="true" aria-invalid="false" /> </div></li><li id='field_5_4' class='gfield gf-conf-check gfield_contains_required field_sublabel_below field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible' ><label class='gfield_label' >Confirmation<span class='gfield_required'>*</span></label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_checkbox'><ul class='gfield_checkbox' id='input_5_4'><li class='gchoice_5_4_1'> <input name='input_4.1' type='checkbox' value='Consent' id='choice_5_4_1' tabindex='70' /> <label for='choice_5_4_1' id='label_5_4_1'>Please keep me updated on new website content and Radix news. (We will process your data in accordance with our <span class="pp"><a href="https://radixuk.org/privacy-policy/">Privacy Policy</a></span>. You may withdraw this consent at any time by <a href="mailto:[email protected]">emailing us</a> or clicking “unsubscribe” at the bottom of our emails).</label> </li></ul></div></li><li id='field_5_6' class='gfield gform_validation_container field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_visible' ><label class='gfield_label' for='input_5_6' >Phone</label><div class='ginput_container'><input name='input_6' id='input_5_6' type='text' value='' autocomplete='off'/></div><div class='gfield_description' id='gfield_description__6'>This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.</div></li> </ul></div> <div class='gform_footer top_label'> <input type='submit' id='gform_submit_button_5' class='gform_button button' value='SUBSCRIBE' tabindex='71' onclick='if(window["gf_submitting_5"]){return false;} if( !jQuery("#gform_5")[0].checkValidity || jQuery("#gform_5")[0].checkValidity()){window["gf_submitting_5"]=true;} ' onkeypress='if( event.keyCode == 13 ){ if(window["gf_submitting_5"]){return false;} if( !jQuery("#gform_5")[0].checkValidity || jQuery("#gform_5")[0].checkValidity()){window["gf_submitting_5"]=true;} jQuery("#gform_5").trigger("submit",[true]); }' /> <input type='hidden' name='gform_ajax' value='form_id=5&amp;title=&amp;description=&amp;tabindex=64' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='is_submit_5' value='1' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_submit' value='5' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_unique_id' value='' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='state_5' value='WyJbXSIsIjg1ZGYwZWM3YzAyMDRmYTcyZDYxNmIwMWJiNmFhYzVhIl0=' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_target_page_number_5' id='gform_target_page_number_5' value='0' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_source_page_number_5' id='gform_source_page_number_5' value='1' /> <input type='hidden' name='gform_field_values' value='' /> </div> </form> </div> <iframe style='display:none;width:0px;height:0px;' src='about:blank' name='gform_ajax_frame_5' id='gform_ajax_frame_5' title='This iframe contains the logic required to handle Ajax powered Gravity Forms.'></iframe> <script type='text/javascript'>jQuery(document).ready(function($){gformInitSpinner( 5, 'https://radixuk.org/wp-content/plugins/gravityforms/images/spinner.gif' );jQuery('#gform_ajax_frame_5').on('load',function(){var contents = jQuery(this).contents().find('*').html();var is_postback = contents.indexOf('GF_AJAX_POSTBACK') >= 0;if(!is_postback){return;}var form_content = jQuery(this).contents().find('#gform_wrapper_5');var is_confirmation = jQuery(this).contents().find('#gform_confirmation_wrapper_5').length > 0;var is_redirect = contents.indexOf('gformRedirect(){') >= 0;var is_form = form_content.length > 0 && ! is_redirect && ! is_confirmation;var mt = parseInt(jQuery('html').css('margin-top'), 10) + parseInt(jQuery('body').css('margin-top'), 10) + 100;if(is_form){jQuery('#gform_wrapper_5').html(form_content.html());if(form_content.hasClass('gform_validation_error')){jQuery('#gform_wrapper_5').addClass('gform_validation_error');} else {jQuery('#gform_wrapper_5').removeClass('gform_validation_error');}setTimeout( function() { /* delay the scroll by 50 milliseconds to fix a bug in chrome */ jQuery(document).scrollTop(jQuery('#gform_wrapper_5').offset().top - mt); }, 50 );if(window['gformInitDatepicker']) {gformInitDatepicker();}if(window['gformInitPriceFields']) {gformInitPriceFields();}var current_page = jQuery('#gform_source_page_number_5').val();gformInitSpinner( 5, 'https://radixuk.org/wp-content/plugins/gravityforms/images/spinner.gif' );jQuery(document).trigger('gform_page_loaded', [5, current_page]);window['gf_submitting_5'] = false;}else if(!is_redirect){var confirmation_content = jQuery(this).contents().find('.GF_AJAX_POSTBACK').html();if(!confirmation_content){confirmation_content = contents;}setTimeout(function(){jQuery('#gform_wrapper_5').replaceWith(confirmation_content);jQuery(document).scrollTop(jQuery('#gf_5').offset().top - mt);jQuery(document).trigger('gform_confirmation_loaded', [5]);window['gf_submitting_5'] = false;}, 50);}else{jQuery('#gform_5').append(contents);if(window['gformRedirect']) {gformRedirect();}}jQuery(document).trigger('gform_post_render', [5, current_page]);} );} );</script><script type='text/javascript'> jQuery(document).bind('gform_post_render', function(event, formId, currentPage){if(formId == 5) {if(typeof Placeholders != 'undefined'){ Placeholders.enable(); }} } );jQuery(document).bind('gform_post_conditional_logic', function(event, formId, fields, isInit){} );</script><script type='text/javascript'> jQuery(document).ready(function(){jQuery(document).trigger('gform_post_render', [5, 1]) } ); </script>
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[gravityform id=6 title=false description=false ajax=true tabindex=999]
<div class='gf_browser_unknown gform_wrapper' id='gform_wrapper_6' ><div id='gf_6' class='gform_anchor' tabindex='-1'></div><form method='post' enctype='multipart/form-data' target='gform_ajax_frame_6' id='gform_6' action='/opinion/the-dangers-of-groupthink-in-a-crisis#gf_6'> <div class='gform_body'><ul id='gform_fields_6' class='gform_fields top_label form_sublabel_below description_below'><li id='field_6_5' class='gfield gravity_head gfield_html gfield_html_formatted gfield_no_follows_desc field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_visible' ><h3>Before you go!</h3> <p>Stay up to date with what's happening at Radix. Get email notifications</p></li><li id='field_6_1' class='gfield gfield_contains_required field_sublabel_hidden_label field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible' ><label class='gfield_label gfield_label_before_complex' >Name<span class='gfield_required'>*</span></label><div class='ginput_complex ginput_container no_prefix has_first_name no_middle_name has_last_name no_suffix gf_name_has_2 ginput_container_name' id='input_6_1'> <span id='input_6_1_3_container' class='name_first' > <input type='text' name='input_1.3' id='input_6_1_3' value='' aria-label='First name' tabindex='1000' aria-required="true" aria-invalid="false" placeholder='First Name*'/> <label for='input_6_1_3' class='hidden_sub_label screen-reader-text'>First</label> </span> <span id='input_6_1_6_container' class='name_last' > <input type='text' name='input_1.6' id='input_6_1_6' value='' aria-label='Last name' tabindex='1002' aria-required="true" aria-invalid="false" placeholder='Last Name*'/> <label for='input_6_1_6' class='hidden_sub_label screen-reader-text'>Last</label> </span> </div></li><li id='field_6_2' class='gfield gfield_contains_required field_sublabel_below field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible' ><label class='gfield_label' for='input_6_2' >Email<span class='gfield_required'>*</span></label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_email'> <input name='input_2' id='input_6_2' type='email' value='' class='large' tabindex='1004' placeholder='Email*' aria-required="true" aria-invalid="false" /> </div></li><li id='field_6_4' class='gfield gf-conf-check gfield_contains_required field_sublabel_below field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible' ><label class='gfield_label' >Confirmation<span class='gfield_required'>*</span></label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_checkbox'><ul class='gfield_checkbox' id='input_6_4'><li class='gchoice_6_4_1'> <input name='input_4.1' type='checkbox' value='Please keep me updated on new website content and Radix news. (We will process your data in accordance with our <span class="pp"><a href="https://radixuk.org/privacy-policy/">Privacy Policy</a></span>. You may withdraw this consent at any time by &lt;a href=&quot;"mailto:[email protected]"&quot;&gt;emailing us&lt;/a&gt; or clicking “unsubscribe” at the bottom of our emails).' id='choice_6_4_1' tabindex='1005' /> <label for='choice_6_4_1' id='label_6_4_1'>Please keep me updated on new website content and Radix news. (We will process your data in accordance with our <span class="pp"><a href="https://radixuk.org/privacy-policy/">Privacy Policy</a></span>. 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