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Editorial Thursday 17 May 2012: Paying a quick trip to the real world, before chilling in a safe space with Andrew Lansley

The other day, I wrote about the Risk Register melodrama, and touched on the alleged 'chilling' effect that the release of this document would allegedly have on civil servants' 'safe space' to think the unthinkable.


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First off, let's have a quick look at the language.

'Safe space' reminds me of the 'safeword' in BDS&M play. A submissive dominatee / masochist picks an agreed 'safeword' with their master or mistress to indicate the point where they have reached their boundary or limit.

(One might, for example, use 'Burns'.)

(Oh, and don't act all shocked that I know about BDS&M. So do you. Health policy is BDS&M by other means, after all.)

It's not a great association, but then, the Whitehall 'safe space' concept is basically weird. What is this 'safe space' for, exactly?

It's for 'thinking the unthinkable', apparently.

It must be.

Because if it isn't, then clearly you are thinking the thinkable - and you clearly would have no potential objection to us taxpayers who fund your wage packet to find out what you're doing on our time.

As for thinking the unthinkable, well, in my understanding of democratic government, we elect MPs and those who form the governing coalition (whether inter-party or intra-party) are meant to have (or pick SpAds to have) the 'unthinkable' radical ideas that lead us all dancing happily towards a new Jerusalem. Or Bognor Regis. Whatever.

The civil service is there to implement and deliver them.

Oh, and we have 'chilling'. I deeply hate the word, unless it's being used about a pate, soup or dessert you're putting in the fridge to set.

I especially hate the yoof vernacular usage - i.e.

"What are you doing?"

"I'm just chilling."

(Takes temperature)"No, you're remaining consistently well-above ambient. Sadly."

But I love the idea of a DH mid-ranking policy person being asked for an outline on the implication of a 50% failure rate among CCG applicants: "naaa, man. I'm chilling, innit? Don't want no FOI bovver wi' me projections. Seriously. Allow it."

Paying a quick trip to the real world
So, we could always do something fairly radical and find out what DH civil servants experience in terms of the real world.

So what do we find?

Well, Civil Service World carried out a poll of 1,395 civil service staff's opinion of the civil service’s risk management skills.

Respondents' views were that:
- 81 per cent of DH civil servants said their risk management skills needed “significant” or “dramatic” improvement (the civil service average response to that question was 59 per cent).
- 81 per cent of DH civil servants, when asked to name the three greatest obstacles restricting civil servants’ ability to involve external stakeholders in policy development, picked “a tendency for ministers to have fixed ideas about the policies they want to see implemented” (the civil service average to that question was 57 per cent).
- 58 per cent of DH civil servants, when asked their top three “elements of the civil service’s culture, expertise and working methods” that are “vulnerable and need the greatest protection”,  named “the ability to provide impartial, honest and open policy advice to ministers, speaking truth unto power” (the civil service average figure was 35 per cent)


(In fairness to DH, when asked to name “the three things that most appealed to you about a career in the civil service before you joined,” its civil servants had the greatest percentage of respondents who named “the opportunity to serve the public and improve the country”: 78 per cent, against a civil service average of 51 per cent. But the 'before you joined' spoils the effect slightly.)

Liberation: the act of chilling something that's frozen?
Given the unwillingness to release the Risk Register, 81% of DH staff saying their risk management skills need "significant" or "dramatic" improvement is not quite a clarion call to give us all confidence.

And 81% feeling that ministerial intransigence over policy ideas stuffs up involving external stakeholders scarcely reassures.

It's highly damning that 57% of DH staff respondents listed among the top three 'at risk' elements of civil service culture “the ability to provide impartial, honest and open policy advice to ministers, speaking truth unto power”.

There is therefore an evident problem with Mr Lansley's 'chilling effect' theory and objection to the Information Tribunal's unanimous verdict. It's pretty damn difficult to chill something that's already in permafrost.