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".
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".
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".
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
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".
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
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.
This changing climate for public services is the main theme of
the next Chapter.
1 HC 263-vii, Q 697 Back
HC 263-II, PSR 28 Back
Ibid, PSR 24 Back
Raymond Plant 'A Public Service Ethic' University of Southampton
2001 p 5 Back
'Making Government Work' Seventh Report 2000-01 HC 94 Back