Integrity

Trust, Service

& Accountability

Behaving Ethically

Giving Frank and Fearless Advice

What is “frank and fearless advice”?

One practical implication of the objective, values and principles of the Ethical Framework for the government sector is that employees may find themselves in a situation where they must give honest and objective advice to those in a position of power.  This is summarised in phrases such as “provide frank and fearless advice”.

Giving frank and fearless advice is not unique to the NSW government sector.  It is a skill that is required in all government sectors (see for example, the approaches taken by the Australian government sector ( http://press.anu.edu.au/titles/australia-and-new-zealand-school-of-government-anzsog-2/frank_fearless_citation/) as well as in the private sector (see, for example www.scu.edu/ethics/practicing/focusareas/business/truth-to-power.html).

Giving frank and fearless advice may be difficult because of the perceived negative consequences of giving honest, impartial, apolitical – but sometimes unwanted or unappreciated – advice. There may be pressure to be “pragmatic” - that is, to give advice, or to act in a way that is expedient or convenient, but does not promote the integrity, trust, service or accountability of the public sector.

In these instances, giving frank and fearless advice requires leadership, courage and innovation to develop practical recommendations that are consistent with the core values and will help the Government of the day achieve its objectives. However, experience shows there are several ways that such a challenge can be addressed.

Giving frank and fearless advice

There are two aspects to giving advice:

  • Advice content:
    • The advice should always be consistent with the Ethical Framework – in the public interest, without prejudice or favour; honest, consistent, impartial; upholding the law and the institutions of government; being apolitical and non-partisan; focussing on customer needs and fiscal responsibility
    • Always propose some alternative ways the overall objectives could be met
    • Remember that once the Minister or manager has made a lawful decision it is the responsibility of employees to implement that lawfully made decision.
  • The communication method:
    • There is no one way to give advice that is frank and fearless.  It always depends on the nature of the relationship between the speaker and the receiver, the circumstances at the time the advice is given, whether the communication is written or spoken, and the potential consequences of the advice to the speaker and the receiver
    • As discussed above on giving negative feedback, it is also important to know the difference between what advice is given (the message) and how the message is communicated (the medium).  How the advice is given, by whom and where (the medium) will often determine if the message is received and understood (without any emotional or other overtones that can undermine the message itself).

One approach (recommended by Stephen M. Goldman (2008) in “Temptations in the Office: Ethical Choices and Legal Obligations”) is to prepare yourself carefully before you give the advice by:

  • Digging into the facts.  Seek out a complete account of the situation, including facts and acknowledgement of biases
  • Gauging similarities with past situations. Recognise any significant particulars between the current problem situation and past situations
  • Analysing your decision-making process.  Don’t over-estimate or under-estimate your instincts or your rational analyses.  Use them as “checks and balances” against each other Propose options.  Suggest a number of practical alternatives, both short-term and long-term, that could be taken to meet the Minister’s or manager’s objectives.

Hearing the truth (or, don’t shoot the messenger)

Different people have different styles of communication, and their communication style may also vary depending on the circumstances and who they are communicating with.  Some people are direct communicators while others may be indirect; some communicate by telling stories while others may use logic to present an argument; and some people are assertive while others may be passive or aggressive.  Your style of communication may not be compatible with the communication style of the person who is giving you difficult or distressing information.  However, as a professional, it is your duty to get the information they are attempting to communicate even if you consider the way they are communicating is annoying or distracting. This is particularly important when people are giving you criticism or unwelcome advice, because if you become angry or defensive you may cause that individual to stop communicating with you, and more broadly, you may develop a personal reputation, a culture and work practices that will result in you becoming isolated, uniformed and ineffective.

When responding to advice that is critical of an existing policy or practice:

  • Recognise it took courage for the speaker to give you the feedback.  Thank them for raising the matter with you
  • Summarise your understanding of the issues that have been raised with you to ensure you have understood them accurately and fully. This may involve seeking clarification from the messenger
  • If the speaker has misunderstood your intentions or requirements, ensure they are clear and understood.  Ask if there are any matters where the speaker might want more information
  • If there is some truth to the criticisms, ask for specific suggestions about how the issues could be addressed, and what specific actions or alternatives would assist in meeting the required objectives.