01 December 1995 - 03 December 1995

The Ethos and Ethics of Public Service

Chair: The Rt Hon The Lord Hunt of Tanworth, GCB

Our conference was suffused with a strong sense that in most of our countries current tides of opinion were putting the concepts of public service, or at least the performance of public servants, under more sceptical challenge than would have been customary, say, twenty years ago. It was not clear to us that this reflected any general decline in the performance itself, whether in terms of integrity (though a few high-profile cases had harmed public confidence within several countries) or of efficiency; it probably sprang rather from a mix of secular shifts in society’s attitudes. These shifts included rising public expectations; a widespread perception that the general activity of government itself was less effective than it ought to be in coping with tasks of increasing complexity; the impact of media increasingly adversarial in disposition, and little bound by past conventions of restraint; and an underlying trend towards a “low-trust” society suspicion of all institutions and stressing individual autonomy and individual rights rather than duties, with an impatience - sometimes healthy, sometimes not - of poor treatment or hardship, and a constant urge to fix blame for anything seen as going wrong. Politicians - not always just those out of office - running “against” public-service institutions often compounded these phenomena, as did a general fading of political civility. Such institutions (by no means the only sufferers) had to reckon with the resulting climate and its pressures as an inescapable reality, requiring practical response - indeed, presenting salutary opportunity - rather than simply warranting complaint.

We acknowledged that the category “public servant” extended very widely - it covered national, regional and local levels of government, and a spectrum of functions ranging from the independent judicial-or- similar through the grant of licences or contracts to the direct delivery of services under the overall direction of the elected tier. Within this spectrum we mostly found it hard, despite recurrent admonitions to ourselves, to avoid concentrating on the core category of officials responsible within central government for the support of elected politicians in shaping policy and managing its execution.

We found little inclination to question some of the main change-driving themes - the public and political demand for greater managerial efficiency, and the parallel demand, in most developed countries, for the public sector to move out of business-type activities (like the provision of electricity or bus services) where the concept of “customer” properly described the service relationship. Some of us commented wryly on the fashionable supposition that the private sector was always a model and reservoir of good practice, and others on the frequent assumption that more efficiency could always spare our communities the hard choices between enhanced output of services and reduced input of resource (including numbers of civil servants, where in many fields file reality of “downsizing” had long since outstripped popular notions of over-protected bureaucracies exempt from the rigours visited upon the private sector).

We were in no doubt that though public service could usefully share many management approaches and techniques with the private-sector world, there were proper and significant differences needing to be maintained. Standards in public service had in some ways to be more demanding, for example in the importance assigned to due process as the institutionalisation of fairness. Our opinions were divided on whether the new emphasis on managerialism had to compel trade-off in values; some thought that emphasis on measured aggregate results almost inevitably relegated process and the carefully equitable treatment of the awkward individual case to lower priority, while others believed that a proper choice of measurement criteria could usually avert any clash. Many judged also that the nature of public political discourse, especially in Parliamentary systems of the Westminster kind, encouraged micro-scrutiny imposing managerial burdens which beset few private businesses, and moreover making neat distinctions between policy and management and the accompanying responsibilities often hard to sustain in practice.

Public service, we accepted, mostly lacked a simplifying bottom-line test of success like return to shareholders, and this generated, despite obvious exceptions, typical differences of professional ethos; in the civil service there was usually less scope for the highly entrepreneurial spirit, and culture was oriented towards cooperation and a collegial rather than authoritarian style in senior posts. There were nevertheless key positive values, like a commitment to service to the citizen (not the “customer” - an inappropriate analogue, many thought) and to value for the taxpayer’s money. And the skills of leadership - something more than management - were no less necessary, especially amid morale-threatening change, though their full exercise might be complicated by responsibilities to political heads who might themselves often have little experience of or even genuine interest in the leadership function in large organisations.

We observed that management doctrines stressing the devolution of even those tasks that remained within the public service to separate executive agencies related to political leaders by contract-like structures were being widely adopted, and had substantial practical dividends to offer in cost-effective service delivery. They posed nevertheless problems of two kinds. First, the clarity of separation that was a managerial virtue pulled against the cross-government coordination and all-of-one-company ethos which traditional civil services had prized highly. Second, awkward questions arose, at least in “Westminster” systems, about the division of answerability between political leaders and agency heads. Not all of us found attempted distinctions between accountability and responsibility persuasive, or dependably sustainable under the pressures of Parliamentary scrutiny. In a democracy, it was commented, elected Ministers must ultimately have the right (except where the law or robust constitutional convention clearly precluded or exempted them) to second-guess the decisions of the organs of government, and that meant that explanations could be demanded even for their refraining from doing so. At least in Britain constitutional understandings on these issues (and on the once-customary back-room-anonymity of civil servants) were still in flux. In Britain, too, both the scale and the severity of the problems were perhaps intensified by a persistent recent trend, too little evaluated and weighed in its full cumulative effects by political decision-makers, towards pulling public functions into the ambit of central government rather than leaving them with elected regional or local organs misperceived as essentially subordinate or less trustworthy.

The combination of new management structures, a more critical environment and greater transparency of operation (this last a general development much to be welcomed in most respects) had heightened or at least highlighted, especially but not only in Westminster systems, a range of pressure points in the professional ethos and ethic of the public servant. The core issue underlying many of them was how far duty extended beyond acceptance of the decisions of elected Ministers to other concepts like separate judgement of the public interest, or the wishes of Parliaments. That this extension reached at least to observance of basic common morality and the law of the land as superior to political direction all agreed; beyond this, participants’ opinions and national traditions diverged.

Some of the divergence sprang from the systemic differences between Parliamentary and separation-of-powers constitutions, some also from disparities in the customary structure of higher echelons of civil services - whether senior posts were filled by political appointment, whether political allegiances were known, whether full-career or in-and-out occupancy predominated. Several participants suggested that countries like Britain would benefit from the freshness of having more in-and-out appointment, and the United States from the professional continuity, skills and long perspective - as well as the improved stimulus and incentive to the full-career element, mostly now denied higher posts - of having a good deal less (though no-one suggested how the latter might be achieved amid the realities of patronage). We speculated as neutrally as we could on what the effects might be, upon the mutual trust between Minister and officials required for non-political “full-career” systems to work well, of sharp swings in political philosophy, or of the arrival in power of parties long denied it.

We noted that public services in most countries tended to under-invest in training, whether conducted within departments or in external schools or universities (where quality and relevance for public administration was not easily sustained, though there were widespread strengths in public-policy analysis not always well drawn upon by governments). The training, at least for the elite level, of public servants in France drew admiring comment, and we heard that the profession there continued to attract - in a degree not all other participant countries felt able to claim - entrants of very high basic quality. That attraction, some speculated, might owe something also to the ease with which senior public servants there could move between the public and private sectors - a relaxed approach to the “revolving-door” phenomenon which other countries felt would be unacceptable elsewhere, and which was under some criticism even in France itself. (In this as in other conflict-of-interest issues we again recognised transparency as almost always a powerful and healthy instrument) We heard also that the often-praised system whereby elected Ministers were closely backed by specially-picked cabinets was viewed nowadays with occasional concern, on the grounds that cabinets tended to grow too large and to constitute barriers between Ministers and their main bureaucratic support.

We found differences, at least of emphasis, among opinions on some particular ethical issues, for example on how far the public servant had a duty, irrespective of Ministerial preference in an adversarial political environment, to insist on putting into the public domain the entire truth on matters under scrutiny; the analogy of the legal advocate’s duty was both adduced and contested. Not altogether surprisingly, the “whole-truth” school tended also to be less rigorous about the unacceptability of “leaking”, whereas those laying primacy on loyalty to elected Ministers were of a mind to regard this as a system-corrosive breach of trust to be condemned in virtually any circumstances, save in the presence of profound wrongdoing. Both schools acknowledged the importance of proper channels for protest or dissent, and the need in any event to use these first, whether or not (another point of divergence here) they embodied some element of external appeal to help underpin professional and public confidence.

We reached more unanimity than would have been likely even a few years ago on the need for civil services to have explicit codes of ethics, regularly promulgated and emphasised by professional leaders. Though thorough acculturation was in the long run the best guarantor of ethical behaviour, in today’s more sceptical environment it needed at least the underpinning of clear precepts by which poor behaviour could be called to account, new entrants formed, and public understanding reassured. Codes could not however solve all problems, not least because of the impossibility of capturing all considerations amid the complexities of government; self-confident professional awareness rooted in public esteem and expectation - and partnered by a matching sensitivity among politicians - must complete the safeguarding defences. We were not wholly sure that, amid the rising pressures, these defences were yet securely up-to-date in all our countries.

Time was too short for us to plumb all the issues which caught our interest - just for example, we could do no more than note that practice on the remuneration of public servants still arguably reflected features like job security whose weight had markedly changed (and we heard critical comment - not only from Westminster-system shellbacks - about the aptness of performance pay in team-oriented activity). In the round, the impressions prevailed that public services had had to adapt to considerable change; that much adaptation had gone well; and that more yet would be needed. Setting the pace and direction of further adaptation would have to negotiate a delicate path in both substance and persuasion, avoiding charges of traditionalist or institution-protecting obstruction yet bringing home to often-impatient reformers the real interactions and interdependencies of particular features within complex systems of modem government Amid all this the maintenance of a strong, distinctive and publicly-respected ethos of public service was less easy than in the past; but it was no less essential, and public-service professionals, political leaders and indeed the media shared responsibilities to that end.

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

Chairman: The Rt Hon The Lord Hunt of Tanworth, GCB
(formerly Secretary of the Cabinet)


Mr David C Goss
Deputy High Commissioner in London

Mr Carlos Perdomo
Permanent Secretary, Ministry of National Security

Mr Michael Bichard
Permanent Secretary, Department of Education and Employment
Mr Vernon Bogdanor
Reader in Government, Oxford University
Sir Robin Butler, GCB, CVO
Secretary of the Cabinet and Head of the Home Civil Service
Professor Peter Hennessy
Professor of Contemporary History, London University
Professor Anthony King
Professor of Government, Essex University; Member of the Nolan Committee
Mr Peter Mandelson, MP
Opposition Front Bench Spokesman on the Civil Service
Mr Bruce Mann
Director of Defence Policy, Ministry of Defence
Mr Richard Mottram
Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Defence
Dr William Plowden
Formerly Director-General, Royal Institute of Public Administration
Mr Paul Pugh
Director of Investigations, Office of the Health Service Ombudsman
Sir Sigmund Sternberg, OStJ, KCSG, JP
Founder Member of Council, Institute of Business Ethics
Ms Elizabeth Symons
General Secretary, Association of First Division Civil Servants
Mr Richard Wilson, CB
Permanent Secretary, Home Office
Lord Wright of Richmond, GCMG
Formerly Head of the Diplomatic Service

Mr Bryan P Davies
Formerly Deputy Minister, Government of Ontario
Mr Aurthur Kroeger
Formerly Deputy Minister, Government of Canada
Mr Edward E Stewart
Formerly Secretary of the Cabinet, Government of Ontario

Monsieur Thierry-Xavier Girardot
Member of the Conseil d’Etat
Monsieur Dominique Le Vert
Formerly Director-General, French Civil Service

Herr Julius Georg Luy
Director of Task Force on the Foreign Service

Mr Gerald Hensley
Secretary of Defence 

Professor Arthur I Applbaum

Professor of Public Policy, Kennedy School of Government

The Hon Harrison J Goldin
Formerly Senator, New York State, and Comptroller, City of New York
Mr Steven L Isenberg
Formerly Chief of Staff to Mayor Lindsay, New York
The Hon Kathleen Day Koch

Special Counsel of the US Office of Special Counsel
Mr Bruce Laingen
President, American Academy of Diplomacy
Rev Fr John P Langan, SJ
Professor of Christian Ethics, Georgetown University
Mr George Nesterczuk
Staff Director, Civil Service Sub-Committee, House of Representatives
Dr Brian O’Connell
Professor of Public Service, Tufts University
The Hon Stephen D Potts
Director, US Office of Government Ethics
Dean Frank J Thompson
Dean of School of Public Affairs, State University of New York
The Hon Paul A Volcker
Formerly Chairman, National Commission on the Public Service
Mr Frank A Weil
Chairman, Council for Excellence in Government
Mr Alan R Yuspeh
Chairman, Board of Ethics, City of Baltimore