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One of the most corrosive things about having any role in public life is being under constant pressure to lie.  The ravenous clamour for instant certainty and infantile simplicity is usually impossible to satisfy with the messiness of running anything in real life, and the stakes for admitting fallibility or doubt are too high.  Not just for people in obviously really senior positions, such as ministers, or Chief Constables, or top NHS executives, but right down to middle managers in any of our publicly funded services.  

When was the last time you heard any of this sort of thing.....?

"You're right, it did turn out to be the wrong decision, but it was what I thought was best at the time"

"The reason we're closing this unit is because it's so small that nobody who's any good wants to work here, which is why, although the staff are lovely, you really should try to get to the other hospital if you have a stroke"

"He was so corrosively horrible to everybody that it was worth paying £200k to get rid of him quickly rather than lose the rest of the team while we laboured through two years of crap HR processes".

"Yes, we've looked at lots of options, including having to make half the staff redundant.  We haven't yet decided what's the best thing to do".

"Actually, we did have a conversation about herd immunity, because in the end it's what we're aiming for, but we changed our minds on how to get there".

"There's no happy medium here, something's got to give - there's not enough money to provide a really excellent service for everybody, so this is how we've decided to cut the cake".

"I think we've all said that we wanted to kill somebody at some point haven't we, but the vast majority of us don't really mean it.  We were all extremely irritated at the time."

"We're not going to go out to public consultation on this because we're going to do it anyway, it's been in our plans for five years."

It's not hard to imagine the confected outrage, the public shaming, the howls for blood and compensation, the sad departure of trusty public servants, etc etc.  So of course none of these things are said.  Instead, countless perfectly good and hard working people become habituated to a daily dripping erosion of the truth, in tiny details, small things unsaid, bigger things implied and sometimes huge and tragic matters denied. Avoid, evade, distract, blur, embroider, deny, and in the end, lie.

It's an unsatisfactory and damaging way to live.  It dumbs down discourse, denies the existence of doubt, and rejects the truth of complexity in favour of a simulated simplicity.  It's bad for people to become used to lying, bad for their blood pressure and bad for their souls.

The silly thing is that as members of 'The Public' we are all deeply familiar with doubt, complexity, making mistakes, failure and changing our minds.  We know in our hearts that we don't magically acquire infallibility the moment we step into a role, whether that's as a nurse or a bank clerk or a gardener or a politician.  Most of us want to understand why people in power over us have made the decisions they have, and to feel that we can trust them to have made them in good faith.  It is being lied to that undermines that faith and creates distrust.

There must be a better way to make running complex things possible without the need to lie.  Perhaps it is about quietening down a bit, stepping back from retribution, rewarding honesty, acknowledging that leading something big and important is an intensification of the complexity of what it is to be human, and not the domain of the gods.  Public opinion is already more forgiving of mistakes honestly owned up to than of lies made to cover them.  And public servants would sleep better at night.

 

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