Here is a tricky one which I heard about recently.

You are a senior civil servant preparing a confidential paper for Ministers on your experiences on the ground in an intervention hot-spot.

You list various recommendations for the way forward. But your main concern is that the British troops and money as currently allocated are just not enough to make a difference. You propose to say so in pretty brisk terms.

You show the draft paper to a colleague who suggests knocking out that paragraph about the insufficient resources:

  • Even if it is true that resources are inadequate in this case, resources invariably are inadequate, plus there are plenty of other HMG priorities screaming for More
  • Ministers therefore will see this as ‘unhelpful criticism’ and lose interest in the many other sensible things you propose, some of which might even get approved
  • You aren’t an expert in military or civilian resource deployments anyway – best to leave such recommendations to people who are
  • And the paper might leak, causing a huge row which will waste time and cause new trouble justifying the already unpopular mission

So you heave a sigh and delete the key paragraph.

Life goes on.

Years later there is to be an enquiry into the whole miserable deployment. This paper can be expected to be produced. Now you ponder: would it not have been better to say then what you really thought?

What is the job of a civil servant?

To say what he/she really thinks, come what may?

Or to say sensible things a Minister is likely to accept, but leave out some key things which may be true but which will just go down badly?

Can the gap between these two in fact be crossed by crafty drafting?