Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

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 some use.

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 gas—presumably 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 reasons—it 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 control—a 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 advisers—a 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 blamed.

  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 bosses—politicians—tend 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 problems.

  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 monoculture.

  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 aims—and 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.

ETHOS (1959)

  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 about 1960.

  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": as follows.

  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 taboo—not 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, encouraging defensiveness.

  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" battle honours.

  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 career, service.

  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 abounded—some 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 events.

  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 endemic.

  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 opportunities.

  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 segment—the 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 business.

  60.  The overall motive is relatively simple—to 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 shareholders—for 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 imperatives.

  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 feedback.

  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.

January 2002

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