Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Professor Diana Woodhouse, Department of Law, Oxford Brookes University (PSR 10)


1.   Is there a public service ethos and how best can it be defined?

  1.1  The public service ethos can best be described as an amalgam of beliefs and norms or conventions of behaviour. It is a value system and like all value systems is to some extent intangible yet, nevertheless, important in binding groups of people who may have disparate responsibilities together. It supports ideas of public service as a vocation and of serving the public good and is strongest in traditional government departments where it is underpinned by the principles of integrity, fairness, equity, probity, consistency, reasonableness and rationality, which, together with accountability to Parliament, constitute the underlying characteristics of the Civil Service. Even here, however, there is evidence to suggest that it is being eroded (Oughton Report, Efficiency Unit, 1992).

  1.2  How far it can be said to exist in other areas of public service, such as health, police and education, is difficult to determine. These have not been subject to the same centralising influence as the civil service and they may be governed more by professional values than by a single ethos. Where local government is concerned, Pratchett and Wingfield found that many local government officials "identified with only a narrow definition of the public service ethos, and operated within a limited conception of it." Thus only professionalism, honesty, impartiality and integrity were supported as key principles and even these were seen as under threat (Public Service Ethos in Local Government, 1994).

  1.3  Nevertheless, the idea of "public" service, branded in the police and health services as "making a difference", may be what motivates many to join such bodies. It also distinguishes between those who are engaged in activities funded by the taxpayer and those who are paid from company profits.

  1.4  The public service ethos may therefore be seen as an unwritten code, of varying strength and applicability, under which those in the public service operate. Moreover, this code is linked to the requirements of public accountability which involve justification and explanation not just for outcomes, but also for the processes by which the outcomes are achieved. Such accountability is particularly relevant to senior civil servants and those in the higher echelons of the police, health authorities, local government, etc.. However, its effect trickles down and there is always the possibility that what begins as a fairly trivial matter will become an issue of political importance.

2.   How is the public service ethos different from the private (or voluntary) sector ethos?

  2.1  The extent to which the public service ethos differs from that of the private and voluntary sectors varies. There may be little difference between public and voluntary sectors, the latter also being underpinned by ideas of public service and non-profit making. Similarly, where professions, such as the medical profession, are concerned the difference may also be slight, partly because the values under which they operate are shared across both sectors and partly because there is an overlap of personnel; for instance, consultants employed by the NHS also frequently have private practices. The most obvious difference as far as ethos is concerned is between the public service and private business. Private business is not concerned with serving the public but with satisfying shareholders (through making a profit) and responding to individual customers (thereby ensuring the profit). As a result, it does not have the complication of the public interest and while increasingly many companies adhere to certain ethical standards, the variation in these standards does not ensure anything approaching a common ethos across the business sector.

3.   Is the public service ethos necessarily a good thing? Can it be an obstacle to the effective delivery of services to the public?

  3.1  The concentration during the last decade on the efficient delivery of public services to individuals as users, consumers or customers has raised questions about the relevance of the public service ethos today.

  3.2  There is also criticism that, particularly in the mainstream civil service, it reinforces ideas of exclusivity and of membership of a club and, by so doing, discourages outsiders from taking up management positions. Critics also suggest that it has more to do with self interest than with the public interest.

  3.3  A further criticism relates to the principles that support it. These, it is argued, result in systems and processes which not only stand in the way of efficiency and effectiveness, but inhibit reform and prevent the introduction of better practices. They also limit the responsiveness of the public service to individual needs and public concerns. Indeed, rules become ends in themselves and the actual objectives are forgotten.

  3.4  The requirements of public accountability, whereby all decisions have to be justifiable, are also criticised on the grounds that they make those who work in the public service backward, rather than forward, looking. Moreover, the association of the public service ethos with the notion of stewardship of public money is seen as encouraging excessive caution and discouraging innovation and a more entrepreneurial approach.

  3.4  However, despite the criticisms of the public service ethos, its maintenance in at least a minimal form is important if a distinctive public service is to be retained. There needs to be adherence to the idea of public service for the public good, otherwise those with professional and other skills will simply migrate to similar positions in the private sector. Serving the public in a non-profit making capacity is different from serving individuals for profit and it needs to be underpinned by certain core, shared values.

4.   Has the involvement of the private sector undermined the public service ethos?

  4.1  There is evidence to suggest that the public service ethos has been undermined by the involvement of private sector personnel and the importation of methods from the private sector. The management culture, dominant in most of the public service, has introduced values which sit uncomfortably with the public service ethos. The use of quantifiable performance targets and the concentration on the individual user may raise some delivery levels. However, they tend to ignore the wider public interest. Similarly, performance-related pay and the emphasis on the achievement of goals encourage a concentration on self and narrow organisational interests rather than the broader interests of the public service and of society as a whole.

  4.2  The public service ethos may also be undermined when top positions within the public service are staffed by people unfamiliar with the values which underlie it. The result may be that instead of these values percolating down through the department or organisation, values from private business will be disseminated and these will ultimately dilute the public service ethos to such an extent that it is no longer a defining feature of the public service.

5.   What measures, if any, need to be put in place to ensure that the search for profit does not undermine the public service ethos?

  5.1  There are measures which can be taken to ensure that private companies, engaged in the delivery of public services, adhere to certain values. Contracts can stipulate the need for systems to be in place which not only ensure that individuals are treated fairly but that like cases are treated alike. It does, however, need to be recognised that such systems might have the effect of reducing the efficiency gains the private sector is meant to bring, for there is a trade off to be made between fairness and efficiency.

  5.2   A possible way to prevent the undermining, or at least the further undermining, of the public service ethos might be to use the Nolan principles as a minimum standard. Individuals from the private sector, who have been imported into the public service, and companies, under contract to deliver public services, could be required to comply with the principles which are applicable to all who hold public office, namely the principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. These could be given effect through published codes of practice, which form part of the contract.

  5.3  Finally, robust systems of accountability, which go beyond audit and complaints procedures, need to be established. These systems will, no doubt, vary depending on the service concerned. However, where contracts for the delivery of public services are concerned the guiding principles should be transparency and openness, not commercial confidentiality.

6.   Summary

  6.1  There is a public service ethos which constitutes the value system or unwritten code of those working in the public service. It is strongest in mainstream government departments but, in a narrower form, is also evident elsewhere.

  6.2  The public service ethos differs from the ethos of private business which, in any case, does not have a common ethos.

  6.3  The public service ethos remains important, despite views that it is no longer relevant, inhibits reform and reduces efficiency and effectiveness. It has, however, already been undermined by the involvement of the private sector.

  6.4  It might be protected from further erosion by contractual terms, which require the installation of systems or adherence to the Nolan principles, and by robust systems of accountability.

Professor Diana Woodhouse

Department of Law, Oxford Brookes University

November 2001

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