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Speaking Truth to Power (TRN1-A01)


This article offers a perspective on the notion of speaking truth to power and challenges federal public servants to consider how various mindsets can contribute to an environment in which decisions are guided by facts, context and nuance.

Published: March 7, 2024
Type: Article
Contributor: Taki Sarantakis, President, Canada School of Public Service

Speaking Truth to Power

Whispering Truth in the ear of Power

One of the most romantic notions of public service as a profession — and every profession has its romantic notions — is Speaking Truth to Power.

This phrase captivates and enthralls many practicing and aspiring public servants, much like words like justice do for young or aspiring lawyers, much like selfless service does for doctors, much like safety and progress do for engineers.

Speaking Truth to Power is an evocative and enduring concept. It probably comes — indirectly — from Socrates and Plato, who both made the distinction between the Philosopher and the King. The Philosopher is about Truth. The King is about Power. The Philosopher worships at the altar of Truth. The King worships at the altar of Power. Indeed, Plato goes as far as to say there can be no Justice — another loaded romantic word, worthy of capitalization — until the Philosopher also becomes the King. That is, until Truth triumphs over Power. Until Power is infused and at one with Truth.

The allure of the concept permeates western political thought throughout time, and is grappled with, directly and indirectly, by Hobbes and Locke and Machiavelli and Hume and Adam Smith. It even seeps regularly into high and popular culture — Shakespeare, the Godfather, the Wire, the Sopranos, Game of Thrones — among many others — each have wonderfully insightful variations of Truth on one side of the ledger, and Power on the other. The concepts are presented and understood as opposites. They conflict. They have trouble co-existing. If they can at all.

But there is a concerning dynamic at play here, at least from the perspective our democratic institutions: putting Truth across from Power as conflicting forces makes them emotively charged. One is honourable and disinterested in worldly matters. Seeking only timeless wisdom. Living beyond the here and now.

Living the life of the mind. The other is crass and decidedly concerned with worldly matters. Indeed, too much concerned with worldly matters. Seeking concern with only the here and now. Living the here and now and caring not too much about tomorrow, or for that matter, too much about yesterday. Both yesterday and tomorrow can be profoundly inconvenient to Power. Living the life of the body — the life of action, the life outside the mind. More impressed with the popular battles and the cheering and the drama and the applause found in the arena, rather than with the solemnity and the dignity and the wisdom to be found in the library.

Speaking Truth to Power.
Capital T-Truth.
Capital P-Power.
How beautiful. How inspiring. How romantic.
How smug. How wrong. How dangerous.

Speaking Truth to Power: Frustration and Failure

As an official, if your mindset is one where you believe you — and only you — have Truth, and your elected politician — and only your elected politician — has Power, you have established a frame of frustration and failure from the onset. By establishing a false dichotomy between truth and power, you have ensured that both you and your elected politician will be unable to effectively play your respective roles in the service of the democratic process.

Let us begin with Truth.

As a public servant, if you believe you are speaking Truth, and only Truth, how can you not become righteous and indignant if that Truth is not followed? Truth being sacrificed? How can someone sacrifice Truth? And for what? For something as crass and low and self-interested as the pursuit of Power? Is this what I signed up for? Is this how I am to serve my saintly role in the democratic process?

As an elected politician, how can one not feel a sense of being judged as morally lacking when you are performing your institutionally assigned role in the democratic process — taking decisions — if you disregard Truth coming your officials? How can you fail but think that you are being held to a standard that is intrinsically unfair and logically implausible — that every utterance and suggestion from your public service officials comes as an altruistic value-free Truth that you are rejecting? And not only rejecting, but rejecting in the name of raw Power? That you are, by definition, rejecting the public good Truth for your personal political Power each and every time you do not follow the Truth being spoken to you by public servants?

Let us turn to Power.

Elected officials in democracies have a defined type of institutional power, generally understood as the power of decision. That power, of course, is constrained in democratic systems — constrained by laws, by courts, by financial resources, by international treaties, by international agreements, by a lack of information, by public opinion consequences, and by myriad other things. But it is fair to say, within the context of these and other constrains, that in democracies the power of decision is the power exercised by elected politicians.

Is this Power in the capital-P sense? Is this an omnipotence worthy of capitalization? It is, instead, an assertion as equally logically implausible as that which assumes every action and utterance from a public service official constitutes capital T-Truth.

And do public service officials lack Power? Certainly they lack decision-making power. But public servants inarguably possess an inordinate amount of power within most democratic systems. Indeed, the power collectively held by the thousands — in some cases, hundreds of thousands — of officials in the many domains that constitute the modern state easily dwarfs that of a handful — a few hundred, typically — of elected politicians.

So it is not too hard to see how a mindset of Speaking Truth to Power automatically sets up a dynamic that is doomed to end in failure and frustration for both the elected politician and the public service official. Far from being beautiful and inspiring and romantic, it is, in fact, smug and wrong and outright dangerous to our democracies.

Changing the Narrative

Acknowledging — categorically — that public service officials and elected politicians each co-exist in their respective legitimate institutional roles within democratic system, and that neither has a monopoly on capital T-Truth or capital P-Power, is a good first step in overcoming frustration and failure for actors on both sides of the equation.

A more worthy aspiration would be moving beyond the negative — merely avoiding failure and frustration — and instead towards the positives of a productive understanding of what can be achieved when each side plays its institutional role well. The onus of carrying the burden for this shift, I argue, falls squarely on the "professional career public servant", and not on the elected official. After all, it is the public servant who often professes the belief that they possess Truth.

Rather than dealing in Truth, officials are better able to play their critical role in democracies if they shift to understanding that they deal in context, in information, in contestable and incontestable facts, in competing perspective. Sometimes — often? — officials confuse the presentation of unwelcome or uncomfortable facts or perspectives as the presentation of Truth.

Approaching elected politicians — the legitimate decision takers — with facts and information and context and perspective and nuance certainly lacks the romance of approaching them — Power — with Truth. But facts and information and context and perspective and nuance are exactly what decision makers need to make good decisions. Romantic? Perhaps not. Invaluable? Beyond doubt.

It is the job of officials to create an environment where facts and information and context and perspective and nuance are all welcome. Indeed, the highly effective official creates an environment where elected politicians actively and constantly solicit them. Who does not find value in better understanding an issue? Who does not find value in better understanding the consequences of taking a particular decision?

So something is illogical here. One side presumably has value to give. The other side has an interest, as we all do, in receiving value. Why this gap? That is, how can officials achieve this dynamic of having their input actively solicited by their elected politicians?

An elected politician needs, first and foremost, to feel that they can trust the professional public service in discharging its own professional responsibilities. This means that the public service is playing its institutional role well. It is running programs efficiently and effectively. It is gathering facts. It is weighing perspectives. It is providing insight and intelligence on a regular basis on current and emerging administrative and potential policy issues. It is anticipating. It is solving problems largely before they manifest. It is giving early warnings on issues that the public service sees but cannot institutionally resolve on its own, issues that will eventually require elected politicians to materially engage at some point with time or attention or fiscal or political capital. It is in making the daily banalities of the administrative state function without undue drama or undue effort or undue cost on a daily basis which builds trust. It is bringing value to the table on a daily basis that welcomes you to the table again tomorrow.

That is say to say, basic institutional competence is the precursor to trust in this relationship. That is to say, the successful actions must come before the poetic words. The deed of today must be done well before one can advise with legitimacy — with being trusted — as to what to do about whatever may be the next thing tomorrow.

Administering competently — playing your most fundamental institutional role well — is basic table stakes before you will be a considered as a valued actor who is actively welcome to speak truth to power. Indeed, unless you do this well and consistently, why would anyone have any interest in any facts or information or context or perspective or nuance that public servants generate?

Wittgenstein famously wrote that whereof one cannot speak, one must be silent. In the public service, that might be modified to whereof on cannot competently administer, one must stop pretending to speak Truth.


Public servants have to earn their seat at the table. And then re-earn it again tomorrow. And then re-earn it again the day after that. Professing expertise — Truth or otherwise — is not credibly received by Power if one cannot consistently manifest the daily consequences of that expertise.

Speaking Truth to Power is brilliant as a heuristic learning tool, which is why it appears throughout history in our philosophical texts. Speaking Truth to Power is also compelling as a drama, which is why it appear throughout history in our literature and movies and television series. But Speaking Truth to Power is dangerous as a mindset for public administration practitioners. The sooner we dispense with it outside of the heuristic teaching context, the better will be the case for public servants, elected politicians, and the very institution of democracy, which today is around the globe so imperiled by a multiplicity of unhealthy forces. Let democracy also not be threatened from within by actors who misunderstand their roles in making healthy democracies function.

(An earlier version of this article was published on

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