The ethos of the service

My late father was at the opposite end of the Civil Service hierarchy to Sir Mark Sedwell. He never rose above the humble rank of Clerical Officer. However, one of his claims to fame was being (as a “Paper Keeper”) one of a small team of a dozen or so in 1940s Newcastle, who in the early stages of the implementation of the Beveridge Report started the Central Office of what became the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance – always known on Tyneside simply as “the Ministry”. This went through various mutations (DHSS, etc.).

A phrase which my father explained to me at a tender age was “the ethos of the service”. It affected the way he did his job in the office including, for example, how you dealt fairly with members of the public however difficult they might be, or how much effort was required to ensure that traveller family got their payments despite unpredictable movements. It also occasionally found its way home. If there were amendments to regulations that needed inserting (a laborious scissors and paste job), or if there was a fraud case (literally tied up with red tape!) that needed to be dealt with very urgently, he was liable to stuff the papers into his saddlebag before cycling home for tea. 

There is still a Civil Service Code. This is from the introduction to the 2015 update:

As a civil servant, you are appointed on merit based on fair and open competition. You are expected to carry out your role with dedication and a commitment to the Civil Service and its core values: integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality. In this code:

  • “integrity” is putting the obligations of public service above your own personal interests
  • “honesty” is being truthful and open
  • “objectivity” is basing your advice and decisions on rigorous analysis of the evidence
  • “impartiality” is acting solely according to the merits of the case and serving equally well governments of different political persuasions

It does not require much imagination to realise that people who attempt to work to this code are going to be seen as a threat by Johnson, Cummings and the present Cabinet. The predictive function on my laptop insisted on calling the outgoing Head of the Civil Service as Sir Mark Seawall. Whatever brought that on, a vital wall has been breached during this last week. Over the next year watch out for a deluge of certified Brexiteers in the new politicised Civil Service. In public service, any ethos must start at the top. Many conscientious civil servants may have to recognise that the top is precisely where it is disappearing.

* Geoff Reid is a Bradford City Councillor and a retired Methodist Minister.

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10 Comments

  • Innocent Bystander 1st Jul '20 - 12:30pm

    Geoff, When I was younger my employer seconded me to one of our departments of state. I observed, after a while, that the civil service is divided into two. There are the front line workers who devote themselves to the forces, childrens’ education, the prison service etc. That is, they look down, like your father.

    Then these is a gap and above that the half of the service that only looks upwards and would not dream of sharing the burdens of those below. No – career management is their profession and access to Ministers. That path leads to Knighthoods, the peerage etc.

    This was made so bad, to the point where it is, in my mind, the root cause of our nation’s ills by the introduction of the Fast Track Civil Servant scheme. Young grads are given a ticket to the very top, on entry. It’s a bus you can’t get on in any other way but you can fall off if you make a mistake. They get moved regularly from role to new role so they never learn or achieve anything (not that they would try anything that might go wrong).

    So, we have our Offices of State now exclusively managed by a layer of sharp elbowed, greasy pole climbers who have taken especial care to avoid anything that looks like trouble and attach themselves to any thing the Minister might like.

    I have dealt with many. They are dreadful people. Their only real skill is the deflection of blame, even to the Minister. What else would such a system, which specifically excludes those who have been tested in the lower ranks produce?

    Personally, I would clear out the entire top layer and replenish from the ranks of the honest souls below.

  • Innocent Bystander. I agree with your last sentence completely.

  • mark seaman 1st Jul '20 - 3:27pm

    Exactly as Innocent Bystander describes it. I spent 21 years in the Civil Service. Far too many in the upper ranks are simply there by dodgy office politics, blame dodging, and moving office when they have been sussed for their total lack of ability 🙁

  • William Wallace 1st Jul '20 - 9:18pm

    Innocent Bystander: ‘sharp elbowed, greasy pole climbers who have taken especial care to avoid anything that looks like trouble and attach themselves to any thing the Minister might like.’ If that description were accurate, we wouldn’t be witnessing a succession of top officials being dismissed by this government because they do NOT attach themselves to anything the Minister might like, but make the case for reasoned policy-making.

  • Innocent Bystander 1st Jul '20 - 10:15pm

    William, I am afraid I knew too well the layer in question to accept your defence.
    There is not a single Office of State which does not have a catalogue of busted budgets, projects miscarried and national and international embarrassment.
    Tell me one that hasn’t.
    I could, we all could, list calamity after calamity. Did any of the very senior level bear any consequences? Of course not. Their names are never, ever, mentioned in the media.
    The politicians, whichever brand happens to be holding the baby at the time, take the blame and are thrown under the bus by the press and although I am not devoted to politicians, I want them to be my voice. I don’t expect, or want, them to be top managers. I want them to be me. We taxpayers reward the executive of the Civil Service handsomely to deliver what we want but are continuously disappointed.
    I have told you exactly how the British disease of second best having become second nature has come about. I can only recommend that you put aside partisan politics and look, critically, at what is going on.
    I was a Managing Director and if Sir Humphrey had spoken to me like that I would have told him to clear his desk and go home and then I would have rung his deputy. But that was the private sector where failure came with consequences, not Knighthoods.

  • No respect for tax-payer’s money permeates the whole systems, from councils through to the top layers, until the salaries are linked directly to efficiency there will be no change. All the minions with their rule books… are they really so wonderful?

  • These comments will warm the cockles of Cumming’s heart. Suitable for a Daily Mail article.
    Wasn’t Beveridge one of the greasy pole climbers?

  • Innocent Bystander 2nd Jul '20 - 11:23am

    Brian,
    You probably dislike Cummings and so do I ( very much so) but our distaste does not make him wrong.
    Although it’s easy to be right when the performance failings are so egregious, continuous and predictable. It is a pity that you and William take a party political stance.
    This is an issue of the management of the nation and the same problems would be yours if the LibDems formed a government (heaven forfend).
    Firstly, there is nothing wrong with the civil service rank and file. Good people all but what would you expect from an organisation which some decades ago deliberately set out to be led by an exclusive, self referencing elite which would be immune from consequences?
    Just how bad do things have to be before you concede what the problem is?
    Our Offices of State have gone from Premier League down to that of a Sunday pub team with no one prepared to hold the management to account.
    On that theme, I have often watched, in despair the Public Accounts Committee pretending to scrutinise PUS’ when they have obviously never experienced the rigour of a private sector budget performance review and content themselves with trying to strike suitably manly poses and ask daft questions like “How could this have been allowed to happen?” triggering a carefully prepared speech in response.
    In a real holding to account session we go through the budget, targets and promises slowly and methodically, item by squirming item.

  • Innocent bystander
    Neither William nor I are taking a political stance. I believe in the ethos of our senior civil servants. Management is a professional activity. The Civil Service is staffed by most able graduates – entry by examination. I had the privilege of knowing Cameron’s chief of office who sadly passed away (tributes were paid by all Political leaders in the House) He was nothing like your generalised description. He came from a unprivileged background via the Uni of Bristol. I also spent 24 years as a senior County Councillor. I found that officers were/are committed to public service and almost invariably smarter than people like me All that was needed was common appreciation of the common good and they always delivered for me.

  • Innocent Bystander 2nd Jul '20 - 5:53pm

    Brian,
    Thank you, and I didn’t expect to get anywhere.
    The facts just speak more eloquently than I. We have come to expect that every government controlled project will be a disaster. We factor it in now it is so bad and endemic.
    I have told you why, from first hand experience, but so many politicians are weak. They have never had to confront under performers and they have never had to sack anyone. A painful task but sometimes necessary. So the incompetent layer remains, defended by those who have never sacked anyone either.

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