Select Committee on Public Administration Seventh Report


1. This Report is the first product of the Committee's continuing inquiry into the Government's programme of public service reform. It considers whether the Government has yet found a convincing vision of public service to underpin its reform programme.

2. The delivery of better public services is the central theme of this Parliament. It is the issue by which the Prime Minister has said he wants the Government to be judged. But the principles on which reform is based remain in question. We have, therefore, decided to try to clear away some of the confusion which surrounds the principles, as a preliminary to examining how they are being converted into practice. We took oral evidence from twenty-five witnesses and received forty-one submissions. We are grateful for these, and for the assistance of our specialist adviser, Mr Tony Travers.

3. One of the main themes of the Prime Minister's speeches on this subject since the last election has been the "public service ethos". However, it is not clear whether it is seen as an existing attribute of public services that deserves celebration, or a desirable attribute of reformed public services that is a goal for achievement (or a mixture of both).

Ethos as Benchmark

4. For the purposes of this Report we define an ethos as a principled framework for action, something that describes the general character of an organisation, but which, and more importantly, should also motivate those who belong to it. As such, the right sort of public service ethos is clearly essential to any effective reform of the public services. We see the ethos essentially as a benchmark, against which public service workers and institutions should continuously strive to measure themselves.

5. This also seems to be the Government's view. On 16 July 2001, the Prime Minister said that the public service ethos was the envy of many business chief executives and that the best people to make reform work were those who believed in "the values, the ethos and the potential embodied in our public services". In a speech which he planned to give to the TUC in September 2001 (but not delivered because of the terrorist attacks on the USA), the Prime Minister said that public services "are run by publicly accountable authorities and overwhelmingly delivered by public servants...we know what would be lost if we undermined the fundamental values that motivate staff, underpin those services and on which they are held accountable to the community". However, this leaves open questions about how such values might be undermined, or cultivated.

The Traditional View

6. In referring to the public service ethos, the Prime Minister acknowledges a tradition. The traditional approach to the public service ethos sees it as a long-established set of values and rules, mostly unwritten, that sets out the standards that public servants should uphold. This view suggests that, although the nature of public service might change in some respects, the principles on which it is based (in Britain these are often traced back to the Northcote-Trevelyan Report on the civil service in the mid-nineteenth century, with its stress on merit in appointment to public office, avoidance of patronage, and political impartiality) have served the nation well and should not be eroded. It involves a recognition of the distinctiveness of public service. The fact that in Britain public servants are not seen as corrupt or self-serving owes much to this tradition, and represents a huge national asset.

7. There was substantial support for this traditional view of the ethos among our witnesses. Sir Jeremy Beecham, Chair of the Local Government Association, referred to the "focus on equity, the disinterestedness of civil servants, their accountability and the commitment which at its best means that people who probably could have an easier and better rewarded life financially elsewhere remain committed to public service".[1]

8. Serviceteam Ltd, a large private provider of public services, offered a similar definition from a very different perspective: "It is the idea that the quality of service delivery should be independent of the private motives or prejudices of the individuals or organisations delivering the service. It is about social justice, social equity, community responsibility and democratic accountability".[2]

9. The GMB Union stressed the motivating power of the ethos: "It is public service ethos which motivates low paid GMB members such as care assistants and hospital ancillary workers to continue with stressful jobs in often poor conditions when they could be earning more at the local supermarket".[3]

10. Reliance on the motivating power of the ethos can, however, be taken too far. For instance, we would reject any suggestion that the personal rewards offered by the ethos should be seen as a recompense for low pay and poor working conditions for public servants. The public service ethos should never be offered as an excuse for treating public service works less well than others.

11. Another aspect of this approach is the idea that those who provide public services have to be trusted by the community. As Lord Plant, who gave evidence to us, has written "those who administer, manage and deliver services have to be trusted to do so and to reflect in their behaviour the values which the organisation was set up to serve".[4] In the light of this, Lord Plant questions the extent to which a system of contracts can help individuals and organisations uphold the public service ethos, a point to which we return below (Chapter 3).

Common Threads of Public Service

12. It is clear from this that the traditional public service ethos contains a number of common threads, in terms of obligations that public servants should meet. These appear to us to include such characteristics as:

These characteristics, often associated with the use of public money, are generally seen as the traditional ingredients of the public service ethos.

The Gap between Theory and Practice

13. However, a gap seems to be opening up between this traditional theory and the modern reality of public service. A number of factors, including the real and perceived shortcomings of public sector organisations and public services generally, may be playing a part in creating this gap. In this context, we have also had to examine the question of private sector involvement in public services, and whether, as some of our witnesses suggested, the public service ethos is threatened by such involvement. There is, too, the wider issue of professional values, and the extent to which they can (at best) act as the most reliable guarantor of standards and service and (at worst) as the narrow defender of sectional interests.[5] This changing climate for public services is the main theme of the next Chapter.

1   HC 263-vii, Q 697 Back

2   HC 263-II, PSR 28 Back

3   Ibid, PSR 24 Back

4   Raymond Plant 'A Public Service Ethic' University of Southampton 2001 p 5 Back

5   'Making Government Work' Seventh Report 2000-01 HC 94 Back

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