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Saturday, 12 February 2011

Office Of The Devil's Advocate

I fancy that the perceived utility of Devil's advocacy has largely suffered from a having bad name. Which is hardly fair, given both its effectiveness and its holy origins. Although the Catholic church saw the value in appointing a canon lawyer to argue against an allegedly saintly person's canonization, other institutions were too timid to follow suit. And when the Catholic church itself replaced the 400 year old role with a lighter weight "Promoter of Justice" in 1983 it 'opened the floodgates' to 500 new saints, when only 98 had been canonised in the preceding 83 years. The role of Devil's advocate might well have been overdone from time to time, but the watered-down replacement clearly didn't cut it as force for critical thought.

Of course, the advent of the lighter weight Promoter of Justice coincided with the secular trend of appointing 'independent' commissions, internal auditors and other functionaries to review, audit or otherwise evaluate our institutions. Yet, just as we have more saints, we also seem to have corruption and fraud on a grander scale than ever before, and the world teeters on the brink of financial meltdown [cue thunder].

The most recent example of such lightweight independent review is the IMF's Independent Evaluation Office assessment of the IMF's response to the financial crisis. The IEO has waited until 2011 to announce that the IMF was guilty of "groupthink" and a lack of critical thought between 2004 and 2008 and so failed to recognise and respond adequately to the sub-prime crisis. Which means the IEO hasn't been terribly effective either for most of the decade.

So it occurs to me that we need to reintroduce a force for unadulterated critical thought - for Devil's advocacy - in all our institutions. We could put a Devil's Advocate on each of our Boards, in Parliament, in the Cabinet and at the top of each of our regulatory authorities. Each DA's office would act as a lightning rod for critical thought about each institution. And as the DA's figured out how to destroy our institutions, we'd be able to respond to the threats and opportunities they'd identified (in the same way Jack Welch once challenged GE's business units to simultaneously destroy and adapt their own businesses).

Which is all fine in principle.

The Devil's in the detail.

Image from Ask Sister Mary Martha.
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