Memorandum by J D Rimington (PSR 41)
I understand that the Select Committee is taking
an interest in the "ethos" of the Civil Service and
its compatibility with private sector approaches to business.
I enclose a paper which I hope will not be overlong
for the Committee, analysing what seem to me the relevant issues.
My qualifications and excuse for writing it are as follows. I
served in the Civil Service for thirty-five years during which
its methods came under increased public criticism and then reform
(1959-95). During that time, I served successfully three Departments,
the Diplomatic Service (twice), two major quangos and a major
committee. I was at different times concerned with policy, European
negotiation, and high-level management.
Since retiring with the rank of Permanent Secretary,
I have served as a non-Executive Director in the public sector
industrial and the private commercial sectors, and as Vice Chairman
of a major charitable organisation. I believe I am able therefore
to make the necessary comparisons with a degree of objectivity.
I hope the analysis in this paper will be of
29 January 2002
1. The following note responds to the Select
Committee's interest in the "ethos" of the Civil Service
and its compatibility with private sector methods.
2. The word "ethos"unfortunately
somehow reminiscent of an asphyxiating gaspresumably refers
to the ethics and standards which may underlie an organisation's
culture and attitudes. Nearly every organisation has a culture;
not all have an ethos. An ethos is something that forms slowly,
can easily evaporate, and is not easily replaced.
3. In discussing the Civil Service's "ethos",
certain difficulties immediately appear. First, the Civil Service
(CS) has always shied from defining its purposes or guiding lights,
for good reasonsit is doubtful that its role has been compatible
with the constitution as popularly conceived. It has tried to
see itself as a parcel of citizens serving the State under Ministers.
4. Second, not all the CS's parts share
the same attitudes, indeed, its important professional echelons
often do not think of themselves as primarily civil servants.
5. Finally, the CS has taken a prolonged
bashing from the media and from its own masters; its role has
been amended; misconceptions about it are universal, and it now
scarcely knows itself.
6. So this note concentrates on the Senior
CS which in different guises and disguises has a continuous history
of a thousand years. It:
(a) lists influences which have formed the
"ethos",if such now exists (para 7-24);
(b) describes the "ethos" as it
existed forty years ago when the writer joined as an aspirant
(1959) (paras 25-43);
(c) refers to certain relevant developments
since then (paras 44-56);
(d) makes some comparisons with the private
commercial sector (paras 57-75).
7. Service and subordination. The CS is
a tool of the State, essentially subordinate. But its size, complexity
and importance indispensably requires a proportion of people of
outstanding ability and force to manage the machine, mobilise
its collective memory and experience to assist policy formation,
and deliver results.
8. Such people know their value, and will
not make the sacrifices of personality entailed insubordination
unless they think the work vital and their situation honourable.
They will retain personal ambitions and wish to mix on normal
terms in general society.
9. Trust. The modern CS (ie, that resulting
from reforms in 1871 and 1919) grew up with a political tradition
permitting large discretion to the Executive subject to Parliamentary
scrutiny and Ministerial controla tradition contrasting
with US and Continental approaches. Discretion implies greater
power and greater trust. The CS, unprotected by any written constitution,
has aimed to deserve the trust shared with it by Ministers, knowing
these can turn to others.
10. "Gentility". The modern CS
sprang from the Victorian professional classes and clergy, inheriting
"gentlemanly" and "rational" values and style.
Likewise, their status was fixed by the Victorian governing classes'
treatment of their agents and professional advisersa touch
of intimacy and a yard of distance. Senior civil servants have
always regarded themselves as the Government's business people
attaching great importance to energy and getting things done,
but acting within an understood code valuing truth, scruple, and
independence of mind.
11. The official condition. Civil servants
belong to a monoculture with a single employer whose frown is
career death. Despite their status as ordinary citizens, others
regard them with a mixture of suspicion, respect envy and contempt,
varying as between eras and individuals. These attitudes eg affect
their general marketability if unsuited or following retirement.
12. Accountability. Democratic governments,
and their servants, are accountable for the details of their business
much more urgently than for overall results, which are often long-term,
disputable and highly politically coloured. Officials interact
with voter-citizens continuously, in matters affecting their lives
as well as, through taxation, their pockets.
13. It follows that political explanation,
ie the ability to explain and defend the principles on which actions
are to be taken and the details of how they were taken, is the
currency of government, just as money is the currency of the private
sector. In a lively democracy, it is what determines success and
failure; for good or ill, it (and not quantitative performance
outcomes) is what makes Ministers and so civil servants jump.
This is a price we pay for democracy.
14. This greatly affects attitudes and ethos,
placing a high premium on political instinct, but also on rationality
and clarity, and making the ability to relate principle to detail
the most insistent demand on civil servants. But is unpredictability
promotes caution and defensiveness; in the political kitchen the
fat is constantly spluttering; and the scullions can easily be
15. This not to suggest that the CS does
not employ modern management techniques or attach importance to
improving real outputs. It does.
16. Function. The bossespoliticianstend
to be driven by events and opportunities, not by long-term pre-occupations.
They generally have no experience of large-scale management and
no intuitive grasp of the difficulties of delivery. They tend
to focus on new projects and the "fixing" of endemic
17. The proper function of the CS is not
only to deliver political requirements but to enforce attention
to difficulties and to accommodate new schemes to the vast mass
of public business which is often fixed in statute, treaty obligations,
public expectations etc., consuming 99 per cent, if not 105 per
cent, of available resources.
18. This requires delicacy, quickness and
courage, since reservations can easily be taken for negativity.
As also, the ability to co-ordinate information and effort over
wide areas. It depends entirely on a high degree of confidence
between Ministers and the CS, and by the willingness of Ministers
to listen to it.
19. Pay and personality. Policy since 1923
has been to pay the minimum necessary to attract and retain adequate
talent, subject to (frequent) resource exigencies. The offer of
a career leading to high positions and of job security has been
an essential part of this otherwise unattractive "deal",
especially granted the risks aspirants run in entering a single-employer
20. Though this package limits peer mixing
with other elite or successful groups, it can attract excellent
people provided it actually results in assisting in government,
and a respectable social position.
21. The offer as described usefully deters
would-be adventurers and emphasises the constraints of public
service. However, if its application falls below the minimum,
it results in the recruitment and retention of overpaid mediocrity,
or of people with limited personality or particular aimsand
of cramping and saddening people trapped in the career.
22. The above influences are those that
in the writer's view underlay the Senior CS "ethos"
up to 1960 and beyond. Other influences also deeply affect the
culture of the CS, and the way things are done. These include
(without further comment), the centralising tendency due to (a)
dependence of all activity on a single source of finance (b) need
to align activity and explanation to a single political strategy
and rhetoric and (c) inappropriately standardised procedures contributing
to simplicity and economy.
23. They also include the nature of the
business, predominantly its fast-moving and seamless quality and
the peculiarities of government services (para 73 below).
24. Finally they include the top-down, command
nature of organisation, arising from detailed accountability through
the top to Parliament, top-down allocation of resources, and the
highly legalised common framework.
25. General. Given its basic co-ordinative
function, the Senior CS emerged after 1920 as a unified body,
with approximate parity of esteem and recognisability of responsibility
levels across all Departments. Although big, it had collegiate
and regimental characteristics.
26. However, unlike most professions, regiments
and colleges the Senior CS never possessed a professional or social
centre and relatively few means of forming service-wide views,
philosophy or "feeling". This acceptance of political
eunuchry and commitment to the government of the day was probably
a fatal weakness when political heat was turned against it from
27. Accordingly, departmentalism remained
a considerable force. There were departmental traditions in policy;
thus the Board of Trade always maintained a "free market"
approach; and all departments were influenced by client groups
whose interests they necessarily represented in Whitehall. A characteristic
departmental concern was the anxious search for future Permanent
Secretaries within the flock, to guard the flame.
28. The fact of Cabinet government nevertheless
enforced strong inter-departmental collaborative activity, mediated
through the Cabinet Office and consisting of departmental representatives
thrashing out solutions intended as acceptable to the Cabinet
and publicly defensible, with serious dissent put up to higher
levels. The system was consensual rather than executive, designed
to prevent messes, and quarrels in Cabinet.
29. However, execution always remained with
a lead department, and the honeycomb or cellular construction
of all parts of the service, with exact definition of areas of
individual responsibility, facilitated teamworking. This depended
on high and standard ability and communication skills; even then,
it could work badly, with too great a tendency to compromise.
It nevertheless accomplished great things economically.
30. Also essential to the proper working
of these systems, because they promoted mutual understanding and
trust, were the several elements we can call "ethos":
31. First, a spirit in which the key position
of the Minister was fully recognised. The attitude was that the
Minister was the Department and the officials in a sense his mind,
which he was free to direct. Only through him could the Department's
reputation be preserved and its understanding of its particular
segment of public policy properly represented. If the Minister
was weak, the officials had to work harder.
32. The system was oriented to the "political"
element; but civil servants were also expected to apply independent
judgement to achieve just and workable long-term solutions. It
a battle were lost, they must accept this and help the Minister
defend his position. This could lead to a "mental set"
in which black became white.
33. There was an unspoken code of interdepartmental
behaviour, sometimes honoured in the breach. There would be "no
surprises". The Treasury, who played dirty, with big sticks
and calculated revenges, were "fair game".
34. A high premium was placed on written
communication. The fact that nearly all advice was written helped
to ensure it was properly thought through and recorded. There
was a near approach to community of information, sometimes qualified
by "need to know". Precisely because so much information
circulated freely, public disclosure was taboonot out of
inherent secretiveness but because abstracted nuggets lend themselves
to misconstruction and political misuse.
35. Contrary to popular impressions there
was a strong bias towards action. Circulation of "think pieces"
or stray contributions to debate was deprecated and any paper
or minute not concluding with a recommendation would meet with
stern rebuke. The attitude was that ideas were three-a-penny;
what mattered was mobilisation of available information and personal
commitment to a defensible course. This contributed to just rebukes
by the Fulton Committee (1968) about deficiency of research.
36. Also contrary to popular superstition,
files did not meander up and down hierarchies. Most advice was
given and action taken at levels below what now apply. A Principal
was responsible for a "patch", and only put matters
up if higher co-ordination was indispensable or a second opinion
advisable. It was a matter of honour for senior officials to respond
promptly if addressed, and for the Principal to be kept in touch
with all moves affecting his patch. Equally, Principals must not
trouble busy superiors without good reason.
37. There was a strong (though highly critical)
respect for colleagues, and an acceptance that promotion was strictly
on merit and generally well deserved. There was no exclusivity.
People were respected for what they proved themselves to be. Half
the "administrative class" was promoted from below,
and women, first admitted in 1923 had reached topmost ranks by
1950. Contrary to popular belief, fast stream entrants included
many scientists, mathematicians and economists, though the majority
were Oxbridge humanities graduates.
38. A high degree of cheerfulness and confidence
was expected, and whingeing of any kind deplored. It was understood
that private convenience must defer to the "exigencies of
the service". Work was hard and attitudes to sloppiness were
tough. Great importance was nevertheless attached to "fairness",
and this could sometimes impede dynamism.
39. However, the attitude to the endemically
slack or inefficient was soft;the reaction was simply to
put them out of sight. When new organisations were set up, the
transports were loaded with the halt and maimed.
Similarly, officials judged second rate were
concentrated in "safer regions". Important public failures
sometimes resulted. A further corollary was that significant failure
brought career death, rather than regarded as useful experience,
40. There was conscious separation of "work"
and "play". Personal idiosyncrasy was accepted provided
it was restricted to the private sphere. The working environment
was often dowdy, and a fetish was made of minor economy. A Permanent
Secretary to the Treasury once crossed Regent St to rebuke the
writer for calling a taxi when late for the Cabinet Office appointment;
there were no "working lunches" at public expense, and
the remaining open fires were stoked twice a day and the poker
removed. Most rooms had a clock. All this was intended to emphasise
the stringency of "the public purse".
41. The idea of discipline and authority
was always discreetly present. Junior staff were treated with
courtesy but rarely praised. Within the elite, aspirants found
senior officials very approachable, though not "familiar".
The Minister was God, to be defended on all occasions.
42. Centralisation bred arrogance in those
at the centre, who were often furthest from the interplay with
the external world and its ideas. Itself staffed exclusively with
able and well supported people, the Treasury probably acquired
a distorted view of the realities and difficulties of public organisation
and management, for which it was responsible.
43. When Sir Alan Marre retired as Ombudsman,
he said that he had sometimes criticised civil servants, but his
overwhelming impression had been of their "goodness".
That is perhaps the most appropriate last word on "ethos".
44. Long before 1960 the CS was mired in
huge post war problems, involving control of half the economy
on socialist lines, industrial decline with severe overmanning
and growing trades union pressures, debilitating retreat from
Empire, endemic sterling indebtness, the resource implications
of a growing welfare component, and the emerging European question.
45. No form of organisation could have survived
this examination untarnished. The Senior CS became the residuary
legatee of political failure and of its own over centralised (though
economical) management arrangements. It also became enmeshed in
public controversies raised by the ambitions of its professional
and scientific echelons, and dialectics about "elitism".
46. Reform was clearly necessary, and was
wanted by the younger generation of civil servants. However a
decade both of national failure and of struggle between the management
of the CS and its external critics for control of the reform agenda
followed the Fulton Committee (1968). By 1980 the CS had added
Tory punch bag status to its "businessman's Aunt Sally"
47. The die was cast for radical further
reform based on extreme private sector models involving forms
of fragmentation aimed at improving focus, and proxies for market
conditions. To this was later added a "pluralist" approach
to policy formation and the redirection of the Senior CS to management
of services and policy delivery, with wholesale replacement of
senior personnel and destruction of the unified, and perhaps the
48. This was accompanied by considerable
public denigration and a major strengthening of the "political"
element in PR and in policy creation. Junior ministers and favoured
political advisers now aboundedsome very able, but all
with a vested interest in shouldering officials aside as well
as feathering future careers. In these circumstances, the CS unsurprisingly
developed its own courtier class.
49. A further consequence of these developments
has been the obliteration of the Cabinet Office machinery described
earlier. Together with the fragmentation of the unitary service,
this naturally produced pronounced silo-effects and ironically,
demand for "joined up government". There was an emergence
of policy czars and central tanks of expertise inhabited principally
by distinguished "outsiders" often employed on a casual
basis but contributing to "pluralism".
50. In the meantime, the influence of declining
comparative pay had become important, if not paramount in determining
51. By 1960 the market factor enabling the
CS to recruit high ex-university talent, namely abundant excellent
humanities graduates with few career avenues, was disappearing,
with the London based professions, finance, and the media offering
good starting salaries for such qualifications. In 1964 fast-stream
entry standards were cut marginally; about 1972 the entry was
quadrupled at a much-reduced standard. This was partly reversed
about 1984, but the poor effects on ability standards have for
some years been evident at senior levels.
52. From 1985, top non-government London
pay levels began to rocket, and starting pay for juniors to follow
suit. At this point the CS ceased even distantly to compete. In
1992 the Top Salaries Review Board was significantly renamed "Senior
Salaries etc." and the practice of introducing outsiders
to high civil service posts at much enhanced pay levels became
53. The fast stream entry is still goodish
quality; but standards such as would support a unified CS with
parity of esteem across the service are no longer uniformly there,
and it is questionable whether much outstanding ability is now
recruited. Indeed, even ordinarily able Principals were in chronically
short supply as early as 1975.
54. There is still enough good ability to
support the eliter segments, though a view that career prospects
would be better served by resignation and perhaps much later return
on privileged terms now prevails. To its credit, the CS has done
much to improve supply through better conditions for women, ethnic
groups etc and it uses and trains its available talent much better
than in 1960. However, nearer the periphery where delivery is
key, there is gross undersupply of really good people.
55. Effects on ethos. All the compacts and
arrangements supporting the pronounced "ethos" of the
post-war years have dissolved. In particular the skein of trust
and mutual regard between senior civil servants and Ministers
has been severely damaged. Certain elements, including incorruptibility,
though frayed slightly at the edges remain, but confidence has
taken a dreadful knock as has the financial and social position
of London based civil servants.
55. Nevertheless, some of the old habits
and attitudes persist and could be adapted or built on if some
other way of conducting government and in particular, forming
policy, were desired. New blood may be necessary now at senior
levels, and the civil service never had a monopoly of honesty,
ability or determination. What it did have was immense experience
in the art of serving a lively democracy, a mastery of rapid co-ordination
of effort, combined with a sense of honour and decency and the
ability to comprehend and deal with very complex problems quickly.
57. The private commercial sector can select
its targets including its customers and focus on them, honing
its methods precisely. It can designate areas of business as independent
profit centres and otherwise organise itself flexibly to exploit
58. It can reinvest gains in new opportunities
or increased efficiency. It can eg reposition itself in the markets
without being criticised for "abandoning" a segmentthe
market will provide.
59. It is allowed to go bankrupt. Perhaps
it sometimes seems to managers that they are embarked on a dangerous
sea, with survival a matter of luck; that is the nature of the
60. The overall motive is relatively simpleto
make a profit. This of course does not exclude, indeed may depend
upon, ethical and qualitative elements. So long as operations
remain within the law, accountability is solely to shareholdersfor
results, which, if not always objectively measurable, are at least
evident and attributable to particular actions.
61. The business is controlled by people
experienced in the problems of management in the relevant sector.
Pay can be set according to the needs of the business and the
retention of individuals, without regard to external considerations.
62. The progress of the business can largely
be measured in terms of "hard" units that are convertible
readily to £s, themselves the ultimate measure of success.
63. No-one can pretend that success under
these conditions is easy, but at least most of the variables are
to an extent controllable by managers.
64. Persistent attempts have been made to
replicate these conditions in the public sector, particularly
the CS. Valuable lessons have been learned. But there is an infinity
of difference between the freedom to manage within the parameters
summarised at paras 57-62, and the delegation of marginal "freedoms"
circumscribed by rules.
65. Given certain major differences, described
below, the attempt to fit the public sector to a private sector
model can be ruinous.
66. In public business, the ultimate motive
is not quantitive; it is the survival of the Queen's government
and the well being of the British people. All contributory actions
are or can be made the object of political controversy, directed
at the topmost managers and supported by slander ad lib.
67. The business is therefore controlled
by politicians attuned to public urgency and political argument,
and not by "persons experienced in problems of management
in the relevant sector". Subordinate managers have to align
every opportunity and solution not just to success or failure,
but increasingly to public perceptions and shifting political
68. Units of "public" output typically
have complex inputs, difficult to cost; they are usually "bespoke",
moulded to individual cases. Consequently measurement is very
burdensome and conceptually suspect, and targeting easily results
in distortion or corruption of the actual output.
69. All business depends on a centralised
allocation of resource which is sensitised to "demand"
not through any market, but through political processes, modified
by public financing imperatives.
70. Because the financial inputs do not
stem from operational activity, there cannot be genuine profit
centres at intermediate levels, with genuine discretion for their
managers, eg to exploit opportunities. On the contrary, limited
delegation to achieve "focus" tends to separate the
delegee from the political processes which determine his inputs
and judge his outputs, and to insulate the political process from
71. Whereas the private commercial sector
would consider it either madness or death to fail to pay what
the market demands for the staff and managers it needs, the public
sector has to defy gravity in this respect. In the CS, the direst
consequences in terms of quality are borne at the peripheries,
which do much of the delivery.
72. Accountability for public services is
complex, distorting and time-consuming, and characteristically
concerns details and procedures rather than overall results. The
(rapidly multiplying) engines of accountability now include Ombudsmen,
Judicial review, the courts in human rights cases, inquiries and
tribunals of many descriptions, and vociferous media.
73. The citizen-voter "customers"
for public services correctly perceive they own them, and behave
accordingly. Many customers are in need; disengagement from them
is impossible; and demand is not, or not fully, price-regulated.
Many involve activities, which the private sector would decline
to attempt except on a "cherry-picking" basis.
74. Finally, if "political correctness"
carries penalties, and the point is debatable, it is the public
sector which pays them.
75. The above are largely inalienable characteristics
of the public sector in a live democracy, even more so of the
Civil Service itself. Its forms of management have to accept and
counterbalance them, rather than basing themselves on approaches
transferred wholesale from very different private sector contexts.