Episode Eleven: Admiral Byng Mindset

On the exercise of patronage and its consequences

Patronage is an inevitable part of any organisation. It is often necessary to hire people for roles they have never done before, or indeed where no one has ever done the role before. For instance, in the Age of Sail, the Royal Navy might often be confronted the problem of five promising lieutenants all vying for a single post-captaincy. It is not immediately apparent how to distinguish between these young men purely on the basis of their service records, and yet a decision must be made.

In more modern times, the same problem rears its head. In general, when we select a Director of Public Health England, or a Chief Medical Officer, or a Chair of the Vaccine Taskforce, we will not really be able to know how they will perform in the crisis, and yet that is the thing we really care about. There is simply nothing for it but to allow broad discretion in appointments and hope for the best.

Sometimes that works out, and sometimes it doesn’t.

Patronage is thus inevitable, and it does come with costs. At its worst, patrons unthinkingly select their friends and relations, or their political allies, selected for loyalty and allegiance, demonstrated in some very different domain to that of the role in question. But it can also come with benefits. Confronted with our five promising lieutenants, the decision-maker at the Admiralty might recall that one of them is that nephew of his who, as a lad, never backed down from scraps and often won fights against much bigger boys. This sort of private but very useful information can be easily factored into decisions in a world where patronage is allowed to operate in a fairly unfettered manner. And indeed evidence suggests that naval officers with powerful friends at the Admiralty performed substantially better in battle, indicating that the patrons - especially in wartime - were judiciously using their power to select on important but low-visibility criteria.

Patronage can be viewed, therefore, as a mechanism to both improve average outcomes, but also increase the variance: on the whole things are better, and you get more top performers, but you also get more disasters. Clearly a mechanism will be needed to remove the underperformers. The Royal Navy, for instance, court-martialled every single post-captain who lost a ship. Most were of course exonerated, but for those who were judged not to have fought well enough, the penalties were severe: a permanent ban from naval command in many cases, death in a few.

Admiral John Bnyg was one of the unlucky ones. Judged to have not fought aggressively enough in the Battle of Minorca (1756) he was convicted to death under the Articles of War, although it was widely expected that George II would commute the sentence. The King declined and Byng was duly executed. Byng had lost no ships and was in many ways a victim of blunders at the Admiralty he was not responsible for. Nonetheless, the Articles of War constituted a strict incentive structure, applying to all ranks equally, that aimed to cajole naval officers to fight to the death rather than withdraw from battle (something that was and is much easier to do at sea than on land).

Afterwards, Byng’s friends and relations who remained in naval service fought like men possessed. His execution served as a powerful demonstration that, on encountering the enemy, there were just three options open: a heroic death in battle, an ignominious death at the hands of a firing squad, or a glorious victory. And since their own powerful patron had been so brutally removed from office, they could no longer rely on him to shield them from consequences. Historians have uncovered a similar effect amongst officers linked by either blood or career to post-captains convicted at court-martial.

What can we learn from all this in our modern-day public bureaucracies? A few things spring to mind:

  1. Attempts to use lawfare to constrain the scope of public patronage are probably bad and attempts by the Good Law Project to weaponize judicial review against ministerial discretion should be regarded with suspicion

  2. The exercise of patronage needs to be tempered by rigorously meritocratic performance evaluation.

  3. When things go badly wrong, swift punishment of the men at the top can and does inspire their juniors to better performance in the future.

It is these second and third lessons that the modern British state has failed to remember. Admiral Byng Mindset would render Dr Jenny Harries, the Comical Ali of covid-19, unemployable in government. Instead she been promoted to chief executive of the Health Security Agency. Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, author of the grandiose but pointless Kajaki Dam operation in Afghanistan, should have been quietly shipped out to a sinecure at BAE: instead he is now General Mark Carleton-Smith, Chief of the General Staff (in layman’s terms, head of the British Army). Chris Whitty will inevitably get a knighthood.

Occasionally we hear some suggestions that the British state should learn from high-performance private sector organisations: how it can be more like Google or Tesla or Tesco or whatever the corporate flavour of the month is. There is of course nothing wrong with these suggestions; the state does have much to learn from the private sector. But how much easier, perhaps, for the state to learn from its own past, looking back to the days when it too was once a high-performance organisation, building the culture that ruled the waves, unafraid to punish even the most senior officials rather than scapegoat their juniors. Today, by contrast, failure is actively rewarded, for to punish failure would be to acknowledge its existence. And acknowledging failure, in the age where news management has replaced governing as the main activity of government, is increasingly something the state cannot do.