Can Universities Learn Anything from Chilcot?

The Chilcot Report was released earlier this month, examining the circumstances of the UK’s involvement in the 2003 Iraq War. Gerry Webber, University Secretary at Edinburgh Napier University considers the report and the lessons to be learned from it.

None of our vice-chancellors have yet sent troops into a foreign country, as far as I know. At least, I haven’t read about it in the Times Higher. Nevertheless, the great affairs of state do sometimes echo faintly along our own corridors of power, and so it is with parts of the Chilcot Report.

Ok. I admit it. I haven’t read the whole thing. I’m a university administrator, after all. But there are three aspects of the report upon which we might usefully reflect, namely: how to make decisions, take advice, and record agreements – or maybe, how not to.

Decisions, decisions

Here’s an interesting quote:

“I like to move fast. I don’t want to spend a lot of time in kind of conflict resolution, and, therefore, I will get the people who will make this thing move quickly and efficiently.”

Sound familiar?

Well it does to me. In fact, it sounds a bit like me (on a good day) and I suspect it might also sound like quite a lot of you, and most of our vice-chancellors. As you may have guessed, this was actually Lord Turnbull ‘s description of the way Tony Blair liked to work with, or one might say without, his Cabinet colleagues. Turnbull was the Cabinet Secretary from 2002 to 2005. He goes on to say:

“That was his sort of characteristic style, but it has drawbacks…” (Iraq Report, vol. 6, section 7, para 404, p. 624).

Yes, indeed.

We all like to move fast, but it’s easy to forget the potential trade-offs, not the least of which are the lack of scrutiny and challenge, the tendency to group-think, the temptation to under-estimate risks, and the difficulty of maintaining collective responsibility, all of which are likely to be exacerbated when documents are presented at the last moment, and the paperwork is light, or non-existent.

As Chilcot notes in the context of Iraq, “a more structured process might have identified some of the wider implications and risks… It might also have offered the opportunity to remedy some of the deficiencies in planning” (Iraq Report, vol. 6, section 7, para 413, p. 627).

Advisers advise, leaders decide

The trouble with advice is that it can interfere with some very exciting plans. What a bore.

Of course, it is “de rigueur” these days to praise strong leaders with bold visions – unless they are Tony Blair, or we disagree with them. Sometimes, however, and especially in our role as secretary to the governing body, when we occupy that role, we have to ensure that decision-makers are properly advised, particularly on legal questions.

As the UK HE Code of Governance (section 2, p. 26, 7.8) says, we are responsible “for the provision of operational and legal advice…[and]…for ensuring information provided to the governing body is timely, appropriate and enables an informed discussion so that it may effectively discharge its responsibilities.”

In this context, it is worth reflecting on the withering assessment that Chilcot makes of the provision by Lord Goldsmith of advice regarding the legality of the Iraq war. Leaving aside the substantive arguments, Chilcot describes the process by which it was proffered as having been “far from satisfactory” – a masterful understatement.

Essentially, whilst the Cabinet was provided with a document setting out the legal basis for military action, it was only a statement of the Government’s legal position. It did not explain the legal basis of the conclusion. Nor, it seems, did the Cabinet press for such an explanation (Iraq Report, vol. 5).

As Sir Franklin Berman KCMG QC pointed out in his submission to the inquiry: “What happens after advice is given can be as important as what happens beforehand.”

Just for the record

So, it seems that there might be some value in a bit of administrative rigour after all, starting with the basics: structured meetings, independent advice, and clear records of important decisions.

In that context, Volume 1 of the Report reminds us that the Cabinet Office Guide to Minute Taking contains some useful advice of enduring value. The first purpose of a minute is to set out the conclusions reached so that those who have to take action know precisely what to do. The second purpose is to “give the reasons why the conclusions were reached”.

A good minute will be: brief but intelligible; self-contained; mainly impersonal; and to the full extent that the discussion allows, decisive. It should not be “a substitute for a verbatim record” but should group points to develop an argument, and dissent from a collective decision should only be recorded if the dissenting member indicates an intention to resign.

At least this is shorter than the Chilcot Report

Much as we all hate “bureaucracy”, the Chilcot Report suggests that there is a lot to be said for the old-fashioned virtues of good record-keeping and due process. If bad decisions are going to be made, we must at least ensure that they are made well.

Image credit: IMG_1325 by World Travel & Tourism Council on Flickr  is licensed by CC BY 2.0