02/25/2012 11:27 EST | Updated 04/26/2012 05:12 EDT

Yes Mayor Ford, You Are Doing an AMAZING Job


When Aaron Wildavsky wrote Speaking Truth To Power: The Art and Craft of Policy Analysis in 1979, it is arguable that he was not thinking about the likes of Toronto's Mayor Rob Ford or his city council supporters. With the firing of TTC General Manager Gary Webster still reverberating, the resultant $500,000 severance package stands out like a Ford-inspired gravy train stain on the city leadership. Future advice will be far less forthcoming, and that will add to the costs of the Ford gravy spill.

Webster's sin was to follow too closely the Wildavsky adage: strong leaders can stand such noise; indeed, good ones encourage such advice. Leaders trying to be strong focus too much on the power aspects of the relationship between political leaders and professional advisors. Weak leaders, especially ones with power, don't understand advice much at all.

Democrats cannot object to politicians making decisions, so that is not the question. How they make decisions is. Apart from listening to publics (the "Art" part of Policy Analysis), paying for a professional public service (the "Craft" aspect of the equation) is designed to ensure that analysis is broadly based on a range of evidence, and options that have been rigorously considered, including public opinion, before actual public decisions -- especially billion dollar ones -- are made.

To ensure job security, senior bureaucrats in Toronto might increasingly be tempted to turn to Bertrand Russell's "Ten Commandments" for guidance: The Second Commandment being, "Do not lie to others, unless they are exercising tyranny over you."

Russell, like Wildavsky, says being truthful -- including when speaking to those more powerful -- is a virtue. The Russell caveat for Toronto advisors runs something like this: "Those who are intelligent but weak(er) cannot be expected to forego the use of their intelligence in their conflicts with those who are stupid but strong."

So confronted, the Ford-Toronto take onTruth/Power is that Power trumps Truth -- so the advice to advisors is "tell em what they want to hear," and hope for a better future - a.k.a if the truth hurts (you), it is okay to lie.

And if you are the ones in power, then you simply seek to muzzle any contrary advice. Just look at Ottawa's efforts to shut up expert advice, wherever it might be contrary to their policy, from Canada's top scientists:

Oil Sands: The advice is all good, all the time.

Climate Change: Not now, maybe never.

Farmed Salmon: No lice, no harm.

Opponents become "radicals," or "extremists," or "enemies of the national interest" unless they are friends of Joe Oliver or Stephen Harper. In the process of truncating evidence-based advice, our democratic discourse, as well as our professional advisory capacity, is woefully diminished. A healthy democracy needs each.

And while it does not make for especially good policy analysis or decision-making, it can make for exciting politics.

Speaking Truth To Power? Or Telling the Dumb and Powerful what they want to hear? In Rob Ford's Toronto, Russell's 2nd Commandment would appear the best advice for short term survival. That may not be the case in Calgary.

Wildavsky, had he met Rob Ford, would perhaps have agreed.