Monday, October 25, 2010

Thoughts from the Train: is a loss of respect for public service fatal for the 'Big Society'?

I've been dwelling on the question of public service this weekend, and as someone who celebrated twenty-four years as a civil servant in the past week, mostly on the front line, I'm more prone than most to wonder about the morals and ethics of government and governance.

For a long time now, I've argued that government is there to enable as far as is reasonable whilst encouraging initiative and personal responsibility. In my day job, I try as far as possible to adhere to that philosophy, but it is made harder by the increasingly strained relationship between administration and the public.

You see, over the best part of a quarter century, I've had a front row seat as first deference and then respect have been eroded. The loss of deference was undoubtedly a good thing, as it encouraged that curiously British notion that the bureaucracy knew best. It didn't but, unchallenged, it tended to take the view that intervention was a good thing, and that public concern would go away if left for long enough. On the other hand, civil servants were generally well trained, supported by a hierarchy of management who knew more than the person below them in the food chain, and steeped in a ethos of public service as a contribution to civil society.

When I started at London North West Collection in October 1986, my senior manager still clung to a hierarchical model of management that reflected an almost military sense of order. Managers were referred to by their title and surname, duties were clearly delineated, and one knew one's place. There were books of manuals, defining what you would do in any given circumstance, and a proper training system.

Those whom we dealt with, referred to as taxpayers, knew the 'rules' too. They knew what our approach was, arguments were rare (although excuses for non-payment were anything but!), and there was an understanding that, whilst we weren't popular, we were doing a job that needed to be done. But as the years unfolded, the corrosive impact of market-based reforms, years of ideology-based abuse from senior politicians and the media, and a dismantling of the professional core of the civil service had an effect.

And now we are where we are. My colleagues struggle to handle callers, now referred to as customers, who believe that their interpretation of tax law is far superior to that of people paid to deal with tax professionally, even where they have actual knowledge. They believe that if they tell us something, with sufficient emphasis, we will quietly accept it, regardless of the prescriptions of legislation. Accountants, especially from the Big Four, increasingly seem to communicate on the basis that any junior member of our staff is stupid and feckless, and the idea that we might work post in the order that it reaches us is a notion that only applies to other people. It might depress me, if I let it. It does depress some of my colleagues...

As the devaluation of public service continues, cutting professional training, turning consistency into rigid process that does not reflect the individuality of circumstance, there is a price to be paid. The demand for performance data creates an army of public sector staff who count things rather than doing anything, adding to the cost of service delivery, frustrating those on the front line who, instead of acting, are reduced to justifying. The relationship between public and the public sector becomes more fractious, again increasing costs.

If we are serious about increasing community involvement in the delivery of public services, we have to rebuild that respect. If volunteers experience for themselves the low regard in which social workers, tax officials and railway staff (to name but three generally maligned groups) are held, their sense of altruism and community spirit might well be lost. If that happens to the extent where the voluntary sector is unable to function, forcing society to fall back on the 'man from the council/Government', we will all lose something potentially precious, the idea of a vibrant civil society, where people take part because it matters to them.

And with that will come the final triumph of the notion that there is no such thing as society, only men and women...


Aberavon & Neath Liberal Democrats said...

Give up. We are inevitably heading for a south European-style poorly-paid, despised, civil service, where only those in a position to accept sweeteners for services rendered will thrive.

Only half-joking. ;-(

Frank Little

Jennie said...

Of course, few people in the private sector get any respect either - from journos to barmaids the public mistrusts and denigrates us - so I think the rot is even deeper than you suggest. But at least we get paid.

The only profession which does get respect, that I can see, is being in the armed forces, and we can't all do THAT.

Mark Valladares said...


There are moments, dark ones, when I fear that you are right. One devalues public servants at ones risk, and if the morality weakens, corruption follows.


I agree, the loss of respect has spread far beyond the public sector, indeed the lack of respect for people around us is something that successive Governments have attempted to address through concepts such as 'the respect agenda'. I do worry about how we can turn things around.