Public Administration CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Professor Howard Elcock, AcSS (Professor (emeritus) of Government, Northumbria University) (CSR 15)


The notion that public services can be improved by applying a generic management approach based on business management is a dangerous fallacy whose application has led to massive public disillusionment with government.

The concept of citizenship has been attenuated, being reduced to that of a consumer.

The promotion of the public interest is no longer acknowledged as a duty of both citizens and public administrators.

Separate education and training must be provided for potential and serving civil servants both at initial and in-service levels, even if these courses are conducted by business schools.

The search for higher virtues in public life must become the ambition of all civil servants, beyond merely earning the monthly salary cheque. Defences against corruption and other forms of malpractice must be strengthened.

1. The present public disillusion with politicians and public servants has been caused by the decline in the observance by Ministers, MPs, civil servants and other public servants of the ethical principles that formerly governed their behaviour. These ethical principles have been displaced by an overbearing concern with the promotion of business values, including the “Three Es”: economy, efficiency and effectiveness. There is in many quarters an unquestioning assumption that the public services are inherently inefficient and extravagant, so that they need to learn lessons in how to operate “leaner, fitter” organisations. Obviously, economy, efficiency and effectiveness are desirable goals from the point of view of the taxpayer but the predominance of business led values has resulted in a number of ethical deficiencies. At one level, the procedural values of accountability, legality and integrity have been lost sight of, although a fourth such value, responsiveness to public needs and wishes, has achieved greater currency (Elcock, 2011). However, the ruthless drive towards business values encapsulated in the “New Public Management” has resulted in more fundamental distortions of the true role of government and the ethical requirements that should dominate its conduct (Elcock, 2012).

2. In consequence, the Committee is not asking all the right questions, since the questions listed generally assume that the neo-liberal “New Public Management” model is the main or even the only basis upon which future civil service reform can be grounded (Question 1). However, reflections on political theories from Plato and Aristotle to the present day indicate that there are lessons taught by ancient and modern political philosophers that have been forgotten and need to be remembered anew. The principles and standards laid down in the past have been displaced by “New public management nostrums” that may improve the efficiency of the Service but will not offer any basis for the renewal of public trust in government. However, one question that must be addressed at once is the Committee’s Question 3: “can models of governance from the private sector be directly transferable to the public sector?” The answer to this question must be an emphatic “No”—indeed, attempts to do this are part cause of our present woes. The notion that management is a generic activity that can be applied in all contexts is a dangerous fallacy: management is highly context specific. Its conduct and development must be addressed in the specific public service context of the Civil Service. The public service management policies adopted wince May 1979 have resulted in a series of major changes that have resulted in as potentially disastrous loss of legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry.

3. The first of these mistakes has been the development of an attenuated view of citizenship in which the citizen is regarded as having no role or responsibility for his or her government beyond those of a customer selecting goods in a shop. True citizenship is much more than this: ever since Aristotle the role of a citizen has been defined as one who has the right and the duty to participate in the government of his or her community. This concept has become attenuated by commercial advertising and reliance by politicians in particular on “spin”, together with the denial of effective opportunities to participate in government decisions apart from the occasional act of voting for the politicians who will rule for the next four or five years. Voting is itself a citizen’s duty as well as a right but working to express the views of his or her community to elected representatives should occupy a significant portion of the citizen’s time and energy between elections if government is to be effectively democratic. Otherwise Rousseau’s contention that the British people are free only once every five years and then they are free only to sell themselves back into slavery, becomes too close to the truth. This problem was exposed by the announcement and development of the falsely named “Citizen’s Charter” in the early 1990s, which turned out neither to be a charter nor to define the proper rights and duties of citizenship. Instead, a commercial model has been mistakenly applied in many public service bodies, with the result that the public feels increasingly remote from the decisions that affect them and are reduced to the passive role of the consumer.

4. Second comes the loss of the obligation on both State and citizens to to protect and promote a collective public interest beyond the sum of the interests of individuals. Such a collective public interest consists in part of the public non-exchangeable goods that it is the State’s responsibility to provide, including clean air and water, defence from internal and external enemies and the assurance through means of enforcing them that covenants made between citizens will be kept. Beyond these goods, which constitute the minimum requirements of the modern state come the collective gains to be made from high quality education of the young, the protection of the poor from undue hardship, the maintenance of good public health, the provision of adequate housing and living environments and the maintenance of full employment. Citizens have the right and the duty to promote and protect this public interest, both to secure the general welfare of the state and to gain security for themselves and their families.

5. Thirdly, in the rush to apply business values to the public services, the ethical requirements of probity and equity that are central to the government’s dealings with its citizens have been lost sight of. Accountability to legislators and the electorate has been attenuated by the creation of autonomous agencies responsible for providing public services with the intention of securing efficient and entrepreneurial service organisations. These objectives are laudable but they must not eliminate the accountability of all public servants to the citizenry via Parliament and local councillors. Other negative results have stemmed from the dispersal of the recruitment of public servants to private businesses and the removal of ethical and legal constraints on the ways in which politicians and senior officials deal with business interests. The spectacle of newly retired Ministers and senior civil servants joining company boards with whose affairs they were dealing with during their time in government is distasteful and does much to encourage current public cynicism and government. The former rules restricting the take up of such appointments until a suitable time following retirement has elapsed should be restored as a matter of urgency. This needs to be part of a restoration of the Northcote Trevelyan principles of the competitive recruitment of civil servants who must remain non-political and detached from business or other interests throughout their careers. In-service recruitment from the business community and elsewhere should be rare and regulated to ensure that corrupt liaisons do not develop. The answer to Question 4 is therefore that the Northcote-Trevelyan principles still have crucial value in minimising the corruption that inevitably develops in spoils systems (Question 9).

6. Senior Civil Servants should remain the strictly non-political advisers of Ministers but the latter should be enabled to use alternative sources of advice including special advisers and “think tanks” to prevent policies becoming stultified by the imposition of “Whitehall views” on Ministers. The recruitment of special advisers should be limited and subject to careful definition of their roles and powers. In particular they should not be given the right to issue instructions to civil servants.

7. As a result of the application of private sector methods and mores in the Civil Service and elsewhere in the public sector, the need for public servants to be educated and trained in the distinct practical and ethical demands of public service have been lost sight of as that education and training has been removed to institutions such as university Business Schools whose main function is the education and training of managers and executives for business organisations. The ethical demands imposed on public servants are not the same as those for businessmen and women but the University and other courses that used to provide the education and training that public servants should receive have been largely dismantled over the last three decades. Distinctive initial and in-service education and training courses specific to the ethical and procedural requirements for public service need to be restored as a matter of urgency. To this end, the Government and the Local Government Association should act urgently to bring about the development of distinct public management groups within Business Schools and insist that those students seeking public service careers or seeking to improve their qualifications to gain professional advancement during their careers must spend at least part of their course time on specific public sector studies. This is not to argue that business has nothing to teach civil servants; rather that the process of learning should be mutual but that the distinctive needs of the public servant must be fully acknowledged and inculcated.

8. Lastly, governments should be encouraging their citizens to strive for the higher ideals and goals referred to by the ancient Greeks as areti, meaning virtue or excellence. For Christians the Ten Commandments, the two Great Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount define the requirements for the leading of a good life and most other world religions contain similar principles which inspire their adherents to better performance in seeking to improve the common weal. Not every good and service can appropriately or fairly be distributed by markets and there are actions and things that should not be bought and sold even if doing so were possible: “In the end, the question is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain social goals that markets do not honour and money cannot buy?” (Sandel, 2012: 203.). The goal of the citizen, whether in business or public service, should be to improve the lot of Mankind, not only to make the most personal or corporate profit possible.

9. Hence the nature of public service, together with the education and training of the public servant, require urgent attention. The activity of management is largely defined by the context in which management is carried on—hence the fact that the values and objectives of public and business management are not the same must be acknowledged. The ethical and legal requirements of public service are very different from those imposed on business people and this means that the approach to management must be different. The obligations imposed on the public servant include the accountability of politicians and public servants to elected representatives requires procedures that to the business person may appear to be inefficient, including meticulous record keeping, the careful consideration of what responsibilities a particular public servant should and should not assume, the absolute requirement that the laws in force be observed meticulously at all times and the maintenance of high standards of fairness and integrity in their dealings with citizens.

10. The present situation is highly unsatisfactory because the result of a series of scandals has been that the citizenry have come to believe that politicians and public servants are concerned only to promote their own benefit—a depressing view that has been encouraged by the public choice economic theorists who argue that people, including politicians and public officials, cannot be other than selfish rational maximisers. By so arguing, these theorists deny the possibility that public administrators can comply with their obligation to govern in the interests of the community without having regard to their own personal interests—a demand dating back tio Plato and Aristotle and upheld by Rousseau’s demand that public administrators must behave “unnaturally” by ignoring their personal interests and predilections (see Chapman, 1988: 12). The consequences are a dangerous level of public cynicism and apathy reflected in low and declining electoral turnouts, an increasing disinclination among citizens to become involved in public affairs, as well as a shift towards supporting single purpose direct action and protest groups. Part of the solution has to lie in a reorientation of the education and training of public servants.

11. It would be unrealistic to seek the disengagement of public service education from Business Schools but the problem must be addressed by the creation of specialist public service education and training units within those Schools with a responsibility to develop appropriate courses for public service education and training. They will need to work with their colleagues in Law, Philosophy and Social Science (particularly Political Science) Departments to achieve this. The courses provided for public servants, both in their initial education to degree and postgraduate level and on in-service courses, must include at least the following:

A thorough instruction in the institutions and machinery of government, especially the processes of representation, the mechanisms for drafting and passing legislation, policy formulation, determination, implementation and revision, together with the machinery for the provision of redress for aggrieved citizens.

A grounding in the ethics of public service. This may include an element of the history of political ideas but it must focus mainly on the concepts central to the responsibilities of public servants. These include accountability, legality, integrity and responsiveness, as well as the need to recognise the importance of active citizen participation and the aspiration to high standards of conduct and the achievement of the higher values without which politics and government become merely the amphitheatre for the exercise of greed and selfishness.

Other components of the course may be taught jointly with business students, including strategic management and marketing, although the different moral requirements for public servants must be recognised in teaching the latter, especially ensuring their awareness of the dangers of advertising and “spin” in creating public disillusionment. In accountancy training, the distinctive requirements of public sector accounting arising from accountability to Parliament and councillors must be built in to public sector training courses.

Unless these reforms are pursued and the public are able to see high ethical standards being observed in government, the present crisis of democracy can only deepen.


Chapman, R A, 1988: The art of darkness, Inaugural Lecture, University of Durham, 20 October.

Elcock, H, 2011: “Citizenship and the public interest throughout the ages: pointers to a new politics?”, Policy & Politics, volume 39, no. 2, pp. Q87–202.

Elcock, H, 2012: “Ethics and the public interest: A question of morality”, Teaching Public Administration, volume 30.n. 2, pp. 115–122.

Sandel, M, 2012: What money can’t buy, London, Allen Lane.

January 2013

Prepared 5th September 2013