Public Servants or Public Leaders?

David Cameron’s remark that he sometimes felt like saying to our military chiefs “you do the fighting and I’ll do the talking” has raised some interesting issues.

Least interesting is Mr Cameron’s lack of political nous – picking a fight with the military brass, especially over issues where public sympathy is clearly with them, not him, is not sensible. Nor is doing it in a way that opens him up to all sorts of ridicule – a man who retreats at the first whiff of grapeshot from the Daily Mail is hardly one to lecture others about doing the fighting.

No, the really interesting thing is what it reveals about British politicians attitudes to public servants – civil or military. The idea that ‘Ministers decide’ and public servants are there just to implement their wishes has a long and unfortunate history.

The most well-known codification of this was set out by the first academic to make it to be American President, Woodrow Wilson, over 100 years ago. He stated the famous doctrine about the separation of politics and administration which has become embedded in our own system. Unfortunately Wilson has been proved wrong time and again, both in practice and in theory.

In practice there has never been a firm line between politicians and administrators. Public servants at all levels – including ‘street level bureaucrats’ – in practice play policy-making roles, whilst politicians often get involved in ‘managerial’ decisions. And in theory most would now accept that public ‘servants’ have an obligation to ‘speak truth unto power’, even if elected politicians do have the final say.

A good democratic political leader would recognize these realities and welcome, not complain, about public officials acting as leaders and not just servants. In many democracies they do just that, treating the voices of ‘expert’ public managers as valuable sources of advice and not irritating disobedient servants.

Mr Cameron cannot be entirely blamed for misunderstanding this relationship – we have adopted hook, line and sinker Wilson’s doctrine. according to the former head of our civil service, Lord Armstrong, our civil service has ‘no constitutional personality separate and apart from that of the government of the day’. David clearly thinks this applies to military servants too. He’s wrong and so was Lord Armstrong, in principle and in practice.

One thought on “Public Servants or Public Leaders?

  1. Colin: excellent blog. The points you make about the civil service feeling it has lost its right to challenge Ministers is one of the big issues raised in the IFG’s recent reports on policy making in Whitehall. We found evidence of civil servants feelign they had to self-censor with Ministers – and Minisetr feeling that the CS did not contribute that much to the process. hence our recommendations to give CS a formal role on policy – through extendign the Accouting Officer responsibility of Permanent Secretaries to the quality of the underlying policy processs — whether it has been robust enough to allow the commitment of public/ private resources. we also siuggest more personal responsibility for the quality of policy assessments and a formal restatement of the respective roles of Ministers and civil servants (and recognition of the value of both in training for CS and – if it ever happens – Ministers. Full reports here

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