Speaking Truth to Power

… a core concept in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100

Concept description

The phrase Speaking Truth to Power has been used as a title of dozens of articles and book, including Aaron Wildavsky’s 1979 classic, Speaking Truth to Power – The Art and Craft of Policy Analysis. In the public management field the phrase is usually used to describe the duty of public servants to advise the political executive without fear or favour. (See Constitutional Convention of a Politically Neutral Civil Service.)

James Mitchell, has emphasized that speaking truth to power is not simply a job for those who advise elected officials, but is a duty for public servants at all levels. In a widely-circulated talk to Canadian public servants (reference below), Mitchell sets out what this means in practice:

“Speak truth to power.” We have all heard the phrase a thousand times.

“Just out of curiosity, I googled the phrase “speak truth to power” and got 390,000 hits. That’s almost 100,000 more hits than another famous phrase, “love thy neighbour.” And about 100,000 fewer than “the sky is blue.” So for most people, the phrase “speak truth to power” falls somewhere between a moral dictum and a platitude. But it’s much more than that for people in the Public Service …

“For you, “speaking truth to power” expresses one of your most fundamental obligations as a public service manager – indeed as a public servant – namely to provide information and honest, fearless advice to your superiors. That’s what you’re paid to do:

  • Not to tell people what they want to hear, but rather what they need to hear;
  • Not to hide the facts but to bring them forward, even if the facts run counter to received wisdom, or someone’s preferred course of action;
  • Not to make your boss or another senior manager comfortable, but to equip him or her to do the right thing – even if that makes them uncomfortable.

“This is true whether your boss is the Director General, the Vice-President, the President or the Minister. Your duty is to give your superiors the information and the advice they are entitled to expect from you as a professional. That’s why you’re managers and executives. You are paid to speak up. If you’re not prepared to do that, you shouldn’t have taken a management position.

“So, can you really speak truth to power?

“As I said, you can, and you should – but it’s not as simple as that. You have to remember a few things first. In fact, I’m going to give you six things to remember about speaking truth to power…

  1. The first thing to remember is that this whole business of speaking truth to power is not about you; it’s about your duty as a public service manager. Speaking truth to power is about the facts, and it can be about ideas, but it’s not about you, and not your ideas.
  2. The second point is that ‘truth,’ in this context, is a complicated business. As I said, we’re not talking here about “revealed truth.” We’re talking about: what you know (i.e., the facts); about the lessons you have learned from experience; about your best judgment on what to do, in light of the facts and all that experience.
  3. This brings me to my third point – be sure of your facts! The credibility of your message – indeed your credibility as an advisor – will be undercut completely if you don’t have your facts correct. Take the time and make the effort to gather the facts and double-check them…
  4. Fourth point – there is a time and a place to speak up. There is a chain of command, and as managers in CBSA, you’re part of it. You need to respect the chain of command – speak up to your boss, not to the President or the Minister directly. As a manager, you have to accept that your advice may not make it all the way up the chain of command.  That’s life.
  5. Fifth, you need to know how to speak up – verbally and in writing. Those of you who are new to management may need to develop your skills in giving tough advice (though doubtless many of you are skilled already). This can be a matter of simple tact, or careful expression in a memorandum, or simply a matter of showing respect to the boss even while you’re disagreeing with her. Remember – the higher your credibility in the organization as a person and as a manager, the easier it will be to speak up and to have your advice considered and accepted.
  6. Finally, you have to learn how to recognize when the argument is over. Don’t forget, this is a team game. Your advice is one input among many, whether you’re a Director or a VP. Take the opportunity to be heard, and then live with the decision. If you keep on fighting after the issue has been decided, you will find you will be left out of the discussion next time, because people will see you as someone who cannot separate themselves from their point of view.”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Institutional Dynamics within Government (core topic) in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100 Governance and Institutions.


James R. Mitchell (2007), Can I Really Speak Truth to Power? at http://www.atlas101.ca/pm/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Can-I-Really-Speak-Truth-to-Power.-James-Mitchell-2007.pdf, accessed 10 February 2017. A later presentation by Mitchell on this topic is summarized at:

Margaret Cappa (2010), “Speaking Truth to Power” and the Questions that Accompany It, Public Policy and Governance Review, at https://ppgreview.ca/2010/10/06/speaking-truth-to-power-and-the-questions-that-accompany-it/, accessed 10 February 2017.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 11 February 2017.

Image: The Keep Calm-o-matic, at http://www.keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk/p/keep-calm-and-speak-truth-to-power-3/, accessed 10 February 2017.