Moral maze: how can civil servants find their way through ethical problems?

For people working in government, getting on with the task at hand should not be a morality-free process, says Claire Foster-Gilbert

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It’s surprising how much of a taboo the word “moral” is around Westminster and Whitehall, considering just how morally attuned the people who work here are. Particularly in Whitehall, given half a chance to think about it, people are well aware of the moral dilemmas underlying policy drivers and the sharp moral choices that sometimes have to be made between competing goods. They are aware, too, of their vulnerability to moral corrosion of character, as they make the policies of the (usually) democratically elected minister work. The political impartiality of the civil servant is the greatest possible stable support of parliamentary democracy, but it takes its toll on people who must set their views and feelings to one side and get on with the job.

Just a year ago civil servants showed outstanding leadership in their collective response to the Brexit vote. Having been paralysed by shock – and in many cases grief – on Friday 24 June 2016, civil servants came into work on Monday morning with their sleeves rolled up, readily sustaining the tradition of making new ideas work as best they can for the country. “Don’t feel too sorry for us,” one Home Office official said to me. “We may not like what we are doing, unravelling 42 years of interdependent relationality with Europe. But we like the fact that we are here to do it.”


During those exciting early summer months, as politicians ran around like ants in a disturbed nest, breaking and re-forming allegiances and looking for new nests and niches to operate from; as journalists breathlessly told the news and hazarded guesses at political developments not quickly enough to be ahead of developments that were, in fact, more interesting than anyone could make up; as the public looked at its neighbour and wondered who on earth they were after all, civil servants worked steadily on. I believe the stoicism that the civil service showed in the face of Brexit was outstanding and will leave its mark on the institution for those who join in the years to come.

The same Home Office official also spoke of his awareness that it was his equivalents in Nazi Germany who at the Wannsee Conference became the architects of the Final Solution, making the genocidal policies of that government work in their day. Brexit is not that, nor anything like it. But being aware of the possibility of moral corruption in elected governments is part of the moral demand on the civil servant. Less excitingly, and more plausibly, a government may not be actively promoting morally fatal policies, but simply lacking in any kind of moral vision, subsiding into he default assertion that every moral choice is equally valid and by the same token merely one lifestyle choice among many. Then policy decisions are made either on utilitarian grounds or populist ones. Working to that kind of agenda is morally corrosive too.

It is essential to the moral health of the country that our civil servants’ moral antennae stay alert and tuned. The Moral Heart of Public Service – a book of essays I have recently edited – seeks to help.

One piece, for example, offers a framework for analysing moral decisions, arguing that every policy has three moral questions that should be asked of it: what is its goal; what is involved in achieving it; and who is most affected by it? Another essay discusses the creative tension between the idealism of public service and its inevitable compromise. Another looks at the moral leadership the UK should continue toshow on the world stage.

One can imagine a government department by analogy as a sailing boat, with the permanent secretary at the helm, the rest of the officials as crew – from the navigator who must know the course and ensure the helmsman or woman anticipates obstacles, to the scrubber of decks who ensures no one slips up. The minister sets the direction of travel. Party pressures and the strength of the prevailing wind of public opinion are constraining factors, but what the minister is, in the end, weighing up, is what is the right thing to do. Every member of the civil service crew is involved in that decision and the way in which it is carried out or, in the analogy, steered towards. If a boat has no clear direction to travel in, all that is really left for it to do is to keep afloat and not crash into anything else in the water. It finds
its place only in relation to other boats. Its crew is busy, but not for any good reason.

Westminster and Whitehall are full of people and institutions that really want to pursue the good, and given half a chance, will think about it and talk about it and deeply reflect on it. That chance is rarely given.To push the analogy further, the government department boats are like the Ancient Mariner who saw “water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink”. The Moral Heart of Public Service seeks to be that drink, watering the parched throats of fundamentally good people who have gone unappreciated for far too long.

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