Organizational Misbehaviour and the Control of Information

This week at the Covid Public Inquiry included descriptions of misbehaviour in Number 10 and the flow of information to the Prime Minister.

Originally published on Substack on 3 November 2023

This week’s evidence session at the Covid Public Inquiry continued its investigation into the UK decision-making and political governance, hearing from witnesses including civil servants in Number 10 Downing Street, advisers to the Prime Minister, and the former Deputy Cabinet Secretary.

As ever, without contemporaneous evidence, some of this exists with the benefit of hindsight. Evidence to the Inquiry is more powerful when evidenced with emails or indeed WhatsApp messages that were sent at the time, and don’t have the opportunity to be finessed after the event.

Organizational Misbehaviour

Helen MacNamara’s evidence showed the culture within Downing Street in early 2000. In particular, the lack of diversity in decision making – not just the lack of diversity in a simple sense, but the lack of diversity of experience in those making decisions.

Helen MacNamara’s evidence was very powerful, and should be listened to to ensure that the culture within Downing Street at the time is not allowed to be replicated in the next crisis.

And contains this on ‘following the science’

I thought [following the science] was a very odd thing to say. It’s not what governments normally do, just decide that they’re going to blindly follow advice from someone else… that was my first question with it, is what are we following? Is that the right thing that a government should be doing is following the science? And also, probably more significantly, didn’t understand what ‘the science’ was, and thought it felt… a bit of a cop out’

The Flow of Information

Martin Reynolds, the former Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, described his role as including to ‘manage the flow of papers between the government machine and the Prime Minister’ [p24], seemingly without input into the content of those papers. (Of note, is the distinction of ‘non-ephemeral’ material; one man’s ephemera is another man’s vital evidence for a Public Inquiry.)

However, in Dominic Cummings’ evidence session, that flow of Covid information was subsequently controlled by… Dominic Cummings.

No papers go to PM on anything related to C19 including from [the Cabinet Office] and [HM Treasury] unless they are cleared by [Tom] Shinner or me [Dominic Cummings]

Advisers Advise, Ministers Decide. But if you control the flow of information to those ministers, you have power, and sometimes more power than you should. Ultimately though it is a matter for leaders to understand the organization that they lead. The analogy of a ‘shopping trolley’, used in evidence is an interesting one. Because you push shopping trolleys. Quite why one would desire to push around a Prime Minister is an open question.

Behavioural Fatigue

And we’re no further forward in understanding the origin of the term ‘behavioural fatigue’, with David Halpern implicating Chris Whitty for using the term and denying that it was his phrase:

It [behavioural fatigue] is not a phrase we had used… Chris Whitty, I think, I’ve read his statement, it’s pretty clear about where it comes from and describes it as a mistake on his part.

The Importance of the Inquiry

The Public Inquiry is not a trivial exercise – answers need to be found for the families of those that lost their lives as a result of the handling of Covid, and lessons need to be learned. But more importantly the learning needs to be implemented to prevent the same mistakes being made again.

LBC Interview, 4 November 2023

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