25 April 2003 - 27 April 2003

Change in ethos and role of the public service

Chair: Lord Wilson of Dinton GCB

Over the weekend of 25-27 April we met with our partners from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard to discuss change in the ethos and value of public service.  We were fortunate to have around the table politicians, no less than three current or former Cabinet Secretaries from three different countries as well as other experts in this field.  Reform of the Public Service is a live issue in most industrialised countries and we focused our discussions on policy options as well as analysis.  We concentrated on decision taking and takers;  the delivery of public services;  the democratic framework within which this should take place and the values which should inform it.

In looking at decision takers we noted the recent controversy in the UK over the role of special or political advisers.  British concerns appeared not to be shared by participants from other countries where the tradition existed of combining the skills of political appointees with the administrative experience of permanent public servants.  There was a general welcome on the British side that a clear definition of the respective roles of the two parties had been set down in the Wicks report and a feeling that with common sense on both sides further major problems could be avoided.  We thought that an absolute requirement for a career civil servant was the ability “to speak truth unto power”.  In less exalted language – the willingness to say no – or as expressed by a senior politician, the willingness not only to please Ministers but also the willingness, on occasions, to displease them.

The view was expressed that the long period of peace and prosperity experienced by most industrialised countries was forcing change on the public service.  People were better educated and more discriminating.  They were no longer tolerant of muddle, and having a wider experience of service delivery by the private sector, they looked for a similar service from the public sector.  There had been a fundamental shift from a client relationship with Government to one of a customer.  This, we thought, was a secular and not just a cyclical change.  To meet these new demands public servants also needed to change.  They now required skills of a high order comparable with those in the private sector.  The fiscal challenge of public sector costs, which were very high, needed to be well managed.  At one end of the spectrum it was suggested that ultimately public servants might become more like partners with Ministers in a joint enterprise.  More generally there was consensus that more thought needed to be given to the recruitment, retention and motivation of career public servants.  This might include career development for middle managers who, on the US model might exchange with managers in the private sector, combined with mid-career education, diverse assignments and mentoring.  There should also be an emphasis on getting rid of poor performers which, some thought, was as important as rewarding top performers.  Performance related pay, in this context, was given comparatively little credence as a motivational tool.  One participant expressed the view that those who regarded public servants as “coin-operated” made a big mistake.  Public esteem for what they did was, in his view, of greater importance.  One participant pointed out that public pressure on politicians often caused them to react with short term initiatives which cut across long-term managerial goals.

Perhaps the key skills now needed by senior civil servants were, we thought, the ability to negotiate, and then manage, large contracts and an ability to monitor both process and outcomes.  This was a departure from the traditional role of policy advice, but given the length of the contracts, frequently spanning more than one term of Government, and the size of the investments involved, sometimes with private sector partners, it was of increasing importance.  We looked at the question of making advice to Ministers public, and heard from a number of quarters that a much higher level of openness than was currently the case in the UK did not create the problems which some feared.  Indeed the fact that their advice, sooner rather than later, would be made public, could serve to concentrate the minds and efforts of civil servants to give the best advice they could.  Some, however, thought that sensitive advice would migrate from paper to the corridors and would be given orally.  Political leadership including, according to some, the training of politicians in certain aspects of their jobs, was critical.  More thought should be given to the induction of new entrants and the explanation to them of the values and ethos of the public service, fundamental to which, in addition to integrity, was a commitment to something that was bigger than the individual.

We discussed at length the question of delivery of public services.  This had become a top political priority in the UK and was high on the political agendas of many other countries.  We noted the emphasis on performance management, results orientated and measured by specific detailed targets.  Targets had produced good results in particular fields such as increasing literacy in the UK.  But there was a tension between top down targets and local empowerment.  There had also been a number of areas where they had not worked, particularly where the targets involved action by more than one Department.  A number of us welcomed the change away from lists of specific targets towards broader goals with more flexibility about how these were to be met.  This was the thinking behind the US Government and Performance Act of 1993.  We heard that in New Zealand there had been a progression at successive stages where the target or aim had been more carefully defined.  In 1980 it had taken six weeks to obtain a benefit, in 1990 it had taken a day, and now the overall aim was to manage people out of dependency.  In Canada the focus was on the recipient with an attempt to deliver the services at a single point even though this might involve complex inter-departmental coordination behind the scenes.

Participants from outside the UK expressed astonishment at the level of central Whitehall control of, and interference in, public services.  One experienced British participant also questioned whether the concentration of power in the Treasury and the Prime Minister’s Office was the right constitutional system for delivering modern public services.  Another participant remarked that Britain plc was not the right model.  The country could not be run like a company.  We noted that the present British Government’s twin aims of delivery, which in its first term of office had been synonymous with a centralising tendency, sat oddly with the political commitment to devolution for Scotland, Wales etc.  Attempts to reconcile the two in its second period of office had spawned a rich vocabulary of euphemisms – “Earned autonomy”, “Constrained discretion” and “New localism”.  Behind the jargon lay, however, a serious point that devolution of decision making would not empower local administrations without some greater devolution of fiscal power.  Alignment of the administrative and the fiscal boundaries was also considered to be important.  E-government was discussed as a new way of providing services.  Experience in the Pentagon and in Canada showed its potential.  But we thought there would probably be a considerable time lag before it would lead to serious productivity gains.  Perhaps the greatest claim that could currently be made for technology was that it would help avoid annoying the citizens as much as more traditional means.

Public private partnerships were, we considered, here to stay.  On the public side success would require adequate competition, smart purchasing, good performance monitoring and attention to incentive structures.  It also required the private sector to understand the public sector.  In the UK the Private Finance Initiative was altering the way in which the private sector thought and behaved in partnership with the public sector and about what constituted profit.  This discussion threw up the questions of risk management and risk taking in the civil service.  Both were skills which were thought to be important, which ought to be encouraged and for which training should be provided.  Network management was another aspect of a modern civil servant’s training which, we considered, should receive more attention since services were as likely in future to be delivered by networks as by government departments.  The bureaucratic state was changing to a network state.  We also thought about different ways of describing those receiving services.  Were they customers, consumers or citizens.  The language of customer choice raised expectations of increased choice and rights, the latter, however, lay more in the area of citizens rights and duties.  (Could prisoners really be considered as “compelled customers”?)  But, argued one participant, referring to people as customers had positive effects.  The alternative to referring to people as customers was to treat them as dirt.  Some suggested that problems might be reduced by being as explicit about what could not be done as well as by what could.  Not every problem could be solved by state intervention.  Once again we noted the way in which jargon could influence the debate.  People often now thought of themselves as consumers and as such had a growing appetite for the services provided by government – health, education, pensions etc. 

In looking at the impact of reforms to the public services on a range of democratic values we identified the core values as:  Accountability, Transparency, Equity, Participation and Legitimacy.  Failure to reform public services, one participant suggested, could prove a major challenge to democracy.  We looked at “marketisation” of public services and thought that the privatisation of UK prison management met the criteria with well designed, managed and published contracts while accountability was maintained by the head of the prison service remaining an official answerable to Parliament.  But negative examples were also to hand where accountability and transparency were lacking such as Railtrack in the UK and electricity privatisation in California.  These had had the effect of shaking public confidence in the privatisation process.  We discussed the difficult political question of equity of treatment which, if pushed too far, could prevent innovation.

Government had, we agreed, become more complex.  In a globalising world power flowed both upward, to international institutions like the UN and the EU, and also downwards to regions and local communities who were demanding a greater say in running their affairs.  This required careful coordination across the different levels of government with clarity about the responsibility and roles of the various groups.  Good examples of successful coordination and spreading of information as best practice were the fight against international drug-trafficking and some areas of EU environmental policy.  On the other hand, the UK Poll Tax was an example of where a series of local policy issues had been moved into central government control with a corresponding loss of local accountability.  In this context a plea was made for capacity building in Government at all levels.  The centralisation of decision making power had, in some countries, resulted in a generation of public service managers without either the skills, experience or, at times, the desire, to take decisions and manage programmes.  Devolving power could only work properly if those involved, both providers and citizens, had the capacity to deliver and the habit of looking to local bodies to fulfil such tasks.  British participants also urged that there should be some independent research in the UK to find out what people wanted and to evaluate what worked and what did not. 

If Government was becoming more complex, so, we thought, was governance.  A participant expressed the view that some Governments were themselves failing the test of governance.  At times major decisions were taken without an adequate opportunity for citizens to express an informed view.  That apart we acknowledged that other actors like the media were influential intermediaries as they provided a public forum for the discussion of public services.  In addition NGOs were providing a focus for the expression of the public’s views and, at times, even for the delivery of services.

In looking back at the ground we had covered we recognised the new environment in which public servants worked.  It was suggested that technology might have an increasing impact.  There had been considerable timelags in its effects on private industry and it was possible that the same would happen in government.  The US Department of Defence had already been transformed by IT and was now moving on to ask Congress to dispense with a civil service pay system originating in the 1880s.  Government, however, had many stakeholders, some of which were resistant to change.  In the public service the process of delivery, not just the product, was important even though it was often claimed, that people were only interested in outcomes. 

If the first task of public services was to serve the public interest, competing priorities made this interest difficult to define.  But changes in all our public services had been occurring.  New public management, public/private partnerships, movement of responsibility to different levels in our administrative systems had all been tried.  The conclusion was, however, clear.  There was no “silver bullet” which would achieve all our aims.  While markets were agile they were better on efficiency than equity.  We had agreed that public servants needed above all the ability to manage contracts competently.  But this might, to some extent, depend on flexibility at mid-career for civil servants whose exchange with the private sector would allow both sides to understand each other better.  This might also fit the aspirations of young people nowadays who often did not wish to pursue a single career path and were interested in training for a “trisectoral career” embracing the public, private and Not for Profit sectors.  Their attitude was more – “show me the work and show me the meaning”.  We thought it was also important to understand that leadership could be shown at any level in the public service, not just at the top.  Those who were inclined to compare private with public provision of services should bear in mind that unlike the private sector, the public sector could not discriminate among its customers.  The public sector had to accept all comers.  Finally, it was claimed that there was something special about the public service.  It was animated by the ethos of serving a larger good – “Seek not to ask what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”.  We agreed that the calibre of the people involved would ultimately determine the quality of the service.  In a comment on the events of 9/11, one participant thought that they would have strategic importance for the role of Government – the large increase in resources for security and intelligence services showed the way.  And in a concluding remark an experienced practitioner remarked that to effect real change in a field as complex as public service it was necessary to have a combination of simple, workable concepts together with political will and leadership.

I am grateful to all those who participated in this conference, some from a considerable distance.  The pooling of experience from a variety of countries and disciplines made for an unusually constructive discussion.  From the Ditchley point of view, we much appreciated our continuing cooperation with the Kennedy School.  Finally the experience of our Chairman at the heart of the British public service, contributed materially to our focus on the key issues.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chairman: Lord Wilson of Dinton GCB
Master, Emmanuel College, Cambridge (2003-);  formerly:  Secretary of the Cabinet and Head of the Home Civil Service (1999-2002).  A Governor of the Ditchley Foundation

HE Mel Cappe

High Commissioner for Canada (2002-);  formerly:  Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet (1999-2002);  a Governor, The Ditchley Foundation
Mr Ralph Heintzman
Assistant Secretary, Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (2002-);  formerly:  Assistant Secretary, Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (1998-2002)
Mr David Lindsay
President and CEO of Ontario SuperBuild Corporation;  President and CEO, Ontario Jobs and Investment Board (September 1997-);  Executive Assistant to the House Leader of the Official Opposition, Ontario (1985-87)

Monsieur Nicolas Dufourcq

Chairman, CEO, of Wanadoo, formerly:  Executive Director, France Telecom (1998-2003)

Ms Marie Shroff

Secretary of the Cabinet and Clerk of the Executive Council

Ms Janet Angus

Director, National Audit Office
Mr Jonathan Baume
General Secretary, FDA
The Rt Hon Virginia Bottomley MP
Member of Parliament (Conservative) Surrey SW (1984-);  Partner, Odgers Ray & Berndtson (executive search) (2000-);  formerly:  Secretary of State for Health (1992-95);  Vice Chair, The British Council (1997-2001);  a Governor, The Ditchley Foundation
Sir Samuel Brittan
Principal economic commentator, Financial Times (1966-);  author;  member, Programme Committee, The Ditchley Foundation
Lord Burns of Pitshanger GCB
Chairman, Abbey National plc;  Chairman, Glas Cymru Limited;  formerly:  Permanent Secretary to HM Treasury (1991-98)
Mr Lawrence Conway
Head of Cabinet Secretariat and Senior Personal Secretary to the First Minister, National Assembly for Wales
Professor Angela Coulter
Chief Executive, Picker Institute Europe;  formerly:  Director of Health Services Research Unit, University of Oxford (1991-93);  Director of Policy and Development, King’s Fund, London (1993-1999)
Ms Catherine Day
Information Directorate, Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Ms Lynette Emmanuel
Project Manager, Greater London Authority Core Performance
The Lord Filkin OBE
Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Home Office
Mr Joe Grice
Chief Economist and Director of Public Services, HM Treasury
Professor Peter Hennessy
Attlee Professor of Contemporary History, Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London (19920);  author and broadcaster;  Chairman, Kennedy Memorial Trust (1995-);  member, Programme Committee;  a Governor, The Ditchley Foundation
Dr John Lloyd
National Secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (AEEU)
Ms Malini Mehra
Director, Centre for Social Markets
Sir Richard Mottram KCB
Permanent Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions (2002-);  a Governor and member of Council, The Ditchley Foundation
Baroness Usha Prashar CBE
First Civil Service Commissioner;  non-executive Director, Channel 4 (1992-);  Deputy Chairman, National Literacy Trust (1992-);  Chairman, The Parole Board (1997-2000)
Ms Mary Tetlow
Principal Adviser, Prime Minister’s Office for Public Service Reform;  formerly:  Senior Fellow, Office for Public Service Management;  Executive Director, Public Management Foundation
Mr Nick Timmins
Public Policy Editor, Financial Times (September 1996-);  formerly:  Public Policy Editor, The Independent;  author, including “The Five Giants:  A Biography of the Welfare State”
Sir Nigel Wickes KCB CVO CBE
Chairman, Committee on Standards in Public Life;  formerly:  Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister (1985-88);  Second Permanent Secretary (Finance), HM Treasury (1989-2000)
Mr David Willetts MP
Shadow Secretary of State for Social Security (1999-);  Member of Parliament (Conservative), Havant (1992-);  author, member, Programme Committee, The Ditchley Foundation

Dr Pippa Norris

McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University;  Author

Professor Robert Behn

Lecturer, Public Policy, John F Kennedy School of Government;  Chair, Executive Education Programme;  Author
The Hon Dr David Chu
Under-Secretary of Defense (Personnel and Readiness);  formerly:  Assistant Secretary and Director for Program Analysis and Evaluation, Department of Defense
Mr Timothy B Clark
Editor and President Government Executive Magazine
Mr Paul T Conway
Chief of Staff, US Office of Personnel Management
Dr John D Donahue
Raymond Vernon Lecturer in Public Policy, Director, Weil Program on Collaborative Governance, John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard
Dr Elaine Kamarck
Executive Director, Visions of Governance for the Twenty-First Century, John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University (1997-);  formerly:  Senior Policy Advisor to the Vice President of the United States, Al Gore (1993-97);  broadcaster and columnist
Professor Steven Kelman
Professor, John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
Mr J Christopher Mihm
Director, Strategic Issues, US General Accounting Office
The Hon Joseph S Nye Jr
Dean, John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University (December 1995-);  formerly: Chairman, National Intelligence Council (1993-94);  Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (1994-95)
Ms Hannah Sistare
Executive Director, National Commission on the Public Service (2002-);  formerly:  Staff Director and Counsel, US Senate Government Affairs Committee (1997-2001);  Fellow, National Academy of Public Administration
Mr Max Stier
Partnership for Public Service