Reflections from a career

You might think that, popping out the other side of a 30-odd year career in the Civil Service, I would want to devote more time to tending my roses. But the fact of the matter is, I’m a pretty rubbish gardener. 

So blogging it is. And this first one will be a bit of a trailer for the ones to come, or at least the ones on public policy.

Getting policy right in the public domain, and implementing it well, remains for me one of the overriding challenges of this or any other time. As I blog, I’ll be trying increasingly to understand the academic literature around this, as well as the wide range of commentary on the subject, but predominantly I’ll be taking a practitioner’s perspective. Having participated in and observed the making of public policy close up over several decades, that’s probably where I’ve got most to offer.

The principal observation I would make is that the business of government is difficult. This may sound obvious, but it’s no exaggeration to say that most people don’t get much beyond the soundbite when seeking to understanding policy development and implementation. There’s nothing inherently wrong with soundbites – quite the contrary, comms being an essential element of public policy – provided they’re underpinned by a strategy and plan that can both be delivered and improve people’s lives in some tangible way. 

Government deals with some of the most complex and intractable problems facing humankind. That might sound like a dramatic assertion, but it really isn’t overstating the matter. Public policy seeks to marry the politician’s policy aim with real world factors such as resource availability (both financial and human), legality, competing priorities, Parliamentary accountability, media scrutiny and the unexpected. All of which takes place in some kind of context, including international factors, which could have a dynamic well beyond the control of the policy-maker. 

There’s also the relationship between official and politician. In the British system, the official remains politically neutral, providing continuity of expertise and objective advice to the new leadership that each General Election (or reshuffle) brings into being. The Civil Service Code, with its tenets of integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality, should be a sacred text for all who serve as officials in Government. 

Naturally, there can sometimes be tensions between officials and Ministers. It may be that the latter would prefer a different answer to the one they’re hearing, but it’s the official’s duty to offer advice in line with the Code. It’s also the official’s duty to do what they can to enact the Minister’s will, within regularity and propriety, and irrespective of personal views on the wisdom of the desired course of action. The Civil Servant’s primary instinct is to support their Minister – to ensure that their decisions have considered all the angles and that they will stand up to Parliamentary scrutiny. Civil Servants need to present their advice in ways that seek to be as helpful as possible, while not flinching from giving the best possible advice to their Ministers in support of their constitutional position. 

The tension here is often between narrative and evidence/analysis. Politicians predominantly inhabit a world of narrative – vote for us, and we’ll make the following good things happen – while officials, as subject matter experts, should rest their advice on the available evidence and the associated analysis. Ideally the two meet somewhere in the middle, with a creative tension, enabling the marriage of narrative and evidence in the interests of the best possible public policy. 

But there’s always a risk that they drift apart. A narrative unsupported by evidence is generally a recipe for public policy disaster, unless you get very lucky. Many other factors come into play here: narrative, for example, can be a magnet for groupthink; human frailty – anthropological, sociological and psychological factors – can reinforce that tendency.  

All good public policy starts with an understanding of the problem, rooted in evidence and analysis, staring complexity in the face and flushing out wishful thinking. It thinks through how things are going to play out, with or without the planned policy intervention. It should also entertain the radical wherever possible, because sometimes the mainstream, consensus view is simply the product of inertia or a failure to understand, and therefore exerts a tyranny of its own. 

It understands the structures and processes of decision-making (including different Departmental interests), the impact on differing societal groups, the centrality of leadership, the levers that can be pulled, the strengths and shortcomings of the organisations expected to deliver, the sustainability of the initiative, its capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. It seeks to map the unintended consequences, the factors lurking in the policy’s peripheral vision (though, by definition, it will almost always come up short to some degree). It doesn’t throw money at a problem without a detailed plan. 

Public policy has of course to be administered, which is of course what Civil Servants do. Taking a wider, international relations perspective, this – to my mind – is the primary difference between successful and unsuccessful states. Public administration – what we often, usually pejoratively, call bureaucracy – is a bit like cholesterol: there’s good and there’s bad. Good bureaucracy makes things happen, and does so without corruption and nepotism. People get educated, roads get built, hospitals function effectively. Bad bureaucracy – including the red tape we all (except those who own it) hate – diminishes the effectiveness of the good bureaucracy, and in the worst cases, such as in failed states, defeats it. 

The things that good bureaucracy makes happen is why private and public sectors are complementary, not in competition. The public sector needs the financial resource that can only come through private sector activity; but the private sector needs an educated workforce, infrastructure through which to deliver its outputs and health provision to maintain the productivity of its workforce. Each can learn from the other. 

The development and administration of public policy is something at which we in the UK are actually very good – world-beaters, in fact. I’d venture to say that the average member of the British public is probably blissfully unaware of that. We could really do with Civil Servants coming up the trusted professions league table to parallel doctors, scientists, teachers, and the armed forces, though they are still well ahead of their political masters and business leaders in that table (and even, perhaps surprisingly, ahead of the clergy/priests). 

Make no mistake, Civil Servants are the unsung heroes of British society. They don’t attract the plaudits that doctors and nurses rightly do, because they’re operating behind the scenes and largely invisible to the general public. But they’re there nonetheless, making sure that the wheels of Government are oiled and functioning. They’re there serving the citizens of this country, and accepting of the fact that they don’t get a whole lot of thanks for it. I know that’s some way from the (very unfair) prejudice of ‘pen-pushing bureaucrats’, but there it is. The British Civil Service is imperfect, sure, but also pretty bloody good.

Public policy, to repeat, is difficult. The business of government is difficult. I want to explore some of these issues in greater depth in future blogs. Given my professional interest in the lessons learned from the Chilcot Report, that’s certainly going to feature. Learning the lessons of public policy that has gone wrong in the past means we stand a better chance of getting it right in the future.

16 thoughts on “Reflections from a career

  1. Roger, I’m very much looking forward to following your blog. I found your blogs at the MOD thought provoking and appreciated your efforts to reply to the comments left. You were by far the most successful contributor to that platform and were sorely missed.

    Having someone with so much experience of public policy blog on the topic will hopefully challenge preconceptions and create an interesting discussion.

    All the best in your endeavour.

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  2. Hi Roger. Really glad you’re doing this. There is definitely a gap in the market for informed rational debate on public policy that doesn’t assume everything is black or white and that there are simplistic solutions to complex issues. I look forward to seeing more.

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  3. A great venture Roger. I, for one, will be an avid reader. Super first article to get going and a covering a subject that feels like it is very much of the moment. Best of luck! James

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  4. Thanks Roger – good start. I remember the heady days after 1997 when we all enthused about evidence-based policy; nowadays, it often seems as if Ministers want policy-based evidence. I liked your description of the symbiotic relationship between public and private sectors – I don’t think I’ve heard it set out in quite those terms before. As for political neutrality, people are often confused by this. Sometimes you will hear people say that the civil service should be neutral between government and opposition, but that’s not true. It is the purpose of the civil service to serve all governments with the same degree of loyalty – in other words, we are neutral between different types of government, and not between the government and the opposition.

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    1. Thanks, Richard. As I say in the blog, it seems to me that if you don’t base the narrative element of public policy on evidence and analysis, you’re heading for trouble. Of course, it’s possible to get lucky and succeed anyway, but you maximise your chances of success by having a solid evidential base. It’s possible to have a narrative about driving your car somewhere, but it won’t get you there unless the technical underpinnings work.

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  5. I really like your blog, Roger. Politicians would never win an election if they stuck to an honest and open analysis of facts; therefore they stress narrative (e.g. “take back control”). Recent electoral results in the UK and abroad are salutary lessons in how narrative “Trumps” analysis. Is the fundamental problem baked into the way our democracy works?

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Laurence. Personally, I think it goes deeper than that, and concerns critical thinking, including the understanding of what is true, and what isn’t. I might start addressing this issue in my next blog.

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      1. Does the position “true for me” have any validity? I look forward to you next blog.

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      2. Hi, Laurence. We’re into subjective versus objective here, of course. The one thing I would say at this stage is that just having an opinion isn’t enough – it has to be underpinned by some kind of evidence or analysis. I should add, though, that it’s perfectly acceptable to have an un-evidenced opinion on unserious things!

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  6. Roger, noting that your post majors on the policy profession as the mainstay of Civil Service activity, and your desire that civil servants should be more highly scored in the trusted professions league table, do you see any rub or schism here with the John Manzoni vision of civil servants as functional experts operating stronger functional management – of finance, HR, commercial, comms, security, project delivery, digital, analysis, etc, etc,  up there with the private sector best? Is there a danger that the Manzoni model weakens the odds of the Civil Service ever being more highly rated for what it does, and as “A Profession”?

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    1. Thanks for your very interesting comment, Putneybridgecommunications. I’m naturally focused on the policy profession, because that was where I spent much of my career, and I genuinely do believe it to be a profession alongside the likes of finance, HR etc. It’s a very specific skill set which shouldn’t be the domain of the ‘gifted amateur’. I don’t see a schism with the Manzoni agenda, because I’ve always believed that the Civil Service should build its professional capability so that the private sector option is used only when there’s no public sector alternative, where it isn’t cost-effective to maintain public sector capability or where the private sector is simply better at a particular task. In the MOD, where I worked, we of course maintained a substantial public sector capability in the form of the armed forces, a service which you could never contract on a ‘just in time’ basis, and where the private sector has neither the scale nor the expertise.

      So I think stronger functional management is a good thing on the whole. The issue with the Civil Service’s trust rating is that most people don’t know what it does or who we are. I’m not blaming them for that – they’ve got better things to do with their lives than seeking out Civil Service job descriptions or understanding what individual divisions or directorates do – but I think the Civil Service could get better at telling the story. Some of this has been happening in the CS Twitter feed during the pandemic, which I think is a good development.

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