World news story

Speak truth unto power

On 20 May HMA Jonathan Allen addressed Class of 2014 at the University of National and World Economy with their approaching graduation.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Class of 2014 at the University of the National and World Economy
Class of 2014 at the University of the National and World Economy

It is a great pleasure to be here today, to wish you all well as you mark and celebrate the end of your studies. Your thoughts are almost certainly more preoccupied with the celebration end of things, and rightly so. I look forward to spending the next couple of weeks dodging limousines packed with cheering graduates on their way to various balls, showing as they do so an intimate knowledge and respect for the Highway Code.

Now is the time for the joyous release of spirits (in both senses of the word) and the rites of passage that accompany them. And I am sure all of your deeply caring professors and tutors will be only too delighted to counsel you when you drunkenly call them at 3am to tell them how marvellous or difficult it all is.

But even the best graduation balls eventually come to an end. The sun stops shining, Slunchev Briag closes for winter, and the holidays are over. At some time between now and then, you will hopefully move from celebrating the end of your studies, to marking their end and contemplating your future.

Some of you will be listening smugly, with your next job already lined up, and looking forward to a pay cheque. Others will plan further study, to return to academia as graduate students, with beards and knowing attitudes to match. But a whole lot more of you may find yourselves unclear what the future holds. So for all of you, but particularly the latter group, let me try to distil a few thoughts about the value of what you have all achieved; the value of your education.

The first thing is that it is a unique possession, whether you think of it as a gift or a hard-earned talent. My first posting as a diplomat was to the divided island of Cyprus, where Greek and Turkish Cypriots have lived apart for years as a consequence of conflict. Many people were forced to become refugees in their own country, picking up a meagre handful of possessions and leaving all they had worked for to flee fighting and ethnic hatred.

That generation instilled an incredible academic work ethic in their children, who would often go to school from 7:30am to 1 pm, and then be enrolled in afternoon private schools as well, with additional tutoring at weekends. “No-one can take what is in your head”, went their reasoning. With an education, you can lose all you have and start again and earn your living. So – point one – value what you have in your heads!

So far, so good. My second point would be about what you do with that knowledge. What is your – valuable – education for? I am going to speak now as an employer of many young Bulgarians in the Embassy, and also as a Senior Civil Servant in the British Diplomatic Service.

You need to be able to think for yourselves. That is the most important thing you should have learned through your time in the education system. Not facts, regurgitated with some linking sentences in exams. Not theories, learned from textbooks like dishes off a menu. But critical thought.

I want to see people who can take in information, analyse its meaning and come up with ideas, theories, recommendations, and judgements. I want people to work for me who improve on others’ ideas, who challenge and accept challenge in return, who react to a changing environment without being told to, and adapt and improve our response.

Above all I want people with the confidence to disagree. The wisdom of crowds is an excellent tool when you want the answer to a question on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”; it is weak if you want to determine on a course of action, when most crowds will stand meekly wondering what to do next, before someone sets off and the rest follow in a stampede, like a herd of buffalo. Do you want to be a buffalo? If you do, I recommend being at the front, at least.

So in my Embassy, my colleagues are challenged by me to disagree with what I say and to think and to come up with alternatives. We don’t employ people who smile sweetly and say “whatever you want boss”. We don’t have a hierarchy based on age or years served, but one based on merit. And we don’t uncritically follow instructions from the people above us, but we debate and understand and improve and challenge and finally accept an agreed policy or decision. That makes both for better decisions and for a happier, more motivated and fulfilled workforce.

So point two is to think critically. Preferably with others – it’s a great team sport.

My third – and final – point is about what you do once you have thought critically. And the key word in that sentence is “do”.

Many of you will have spent your years of education in classrooms of various sorts. You have been learning (hopefully learning to think critically) and developing theories. In the academic world, we develop theories; in the business and government world, the same process is often called developing a strategy.

I will let you into a small secret. “Strategy” as a word is used in inverse proportion to how strategic it genuinely is.

I’m rather pleased with that – as we’re in a University, I propose to call that “Allen’s law of inverse strategy”; I’d be grateful if one of the academic staff could help me with how to market it and copyright it so I can sell lots of books that business people buy in airports and regret by the time the meal is being served.

So if a government minister stands up on TV and says “we have worked with our strategic partners on a strategic response to the strategic problem of {insert problem here – maybe bad manners in schoolchildren} and have therefore strategically developed a Stopping Scholastic Spitting Strategy”… you can guarantee that it’s been made up in about two hours, yesterday, in response to newspaper headlines and some opinion polls.

Worse still, you can pretty much guarantee that most of the time, nothing will happen next. I know, because I have seen far too many British Government strategies announced with a huge fanfare that are then laid carefully on a shelf to gather dust until the next time we need a strategy.

This is a terrible waste of time and effort, so my plea to you is not just to think, but to do. Ask yourselves how your ideas, your theories, your plans, your strategies will actually be implemented. How will something in the real world change as a result? This can actually be an important part of the thinking process – it’s only when we try to work out how we would actually carry out our plan that we realise it wouldn’t work and we need a new one.

And then go out and do it. Better still, make sure others do it too. Agree actions and then go ask them whether they’ve done them, and if not, why not? Show even the most cynical that you can change the world, little by little. We sometimes get so dwarfed by a problem that we don’t know where to start; but you have to start somewhere to prove it’s worth taking action at all.

When I was at school, there was a seminal hit by Frankie Goes to Hollywood with the line “Relax, Don’t Do It”. I’m an Ambassador, not a singer, so my third point for you is “Don’t Relax, Do It”.

So, three things for you to muse on. Value what’s in your head. Use it to think critically. Then make sure you do something.

I am privileged to work for a great institution, the British Civil Service, with traditions of service that stretch back centuries. And one of those traditions, one of our duties, is “to speak truth unto power”. In other words, it is to offer honest and impartial advice to government ministers, elected by the people, no matter how more comfortable it might make us not to do so.

I am a great optimist for and believer in Bulgaria. I believe this country has a very special mix of people and geography, which can make it truly a great country. But if it is to be great, then not only do more people need to speak truth unto power, but those in power need to listen. Whether they are in business or government, in academia or in NGOs, local mayors or the President himself. And in a very small way, I too contribute. I travel all over Bulgaria, visiting different towns and cities and meeting all sorts of people. I listen. I ask questions. And then I talk about what I see and hear to those in power.

Of all my tasks, my favourite moments are when I visit schools and universities and spend time with young people. Because you do not have an exaggerated sense of respect for my position. You do not worry about the consequences of asking difficult questions or having an argument.

So my plea to you, as you grow old and develop (as I have) both children and a stomach, do not lose the instincts you have now to question, challenge and debate.

Value what’s in your head. Use it to think critically. Then do something with it.

And don’t ever stop speaking truth unto power.

Published 21 May 2014