Opinion: It’s time to rebrand the civil service

The civil service works hard to reach out to the country to make itself more representative of the nation. But at a time of looming reforms, perhaps a more fundamental refresh is in order

As specialists in branding, including political branding, we cannot but wonder whether the ‘civil service’ needs serious repositioning, given an apparent terminal decline in its brand. Would ‘public administration and innovation service’ (PAIS) not be better?

Our case is that senior civil servants are routinely subjected to criticism from media commentators, politicians and special advisors. At least, when they are not being sacked. The permanent secretary for the Department for Education, Jonathan Slater, recently sacked after the exams debacle, is the latest in a number of perm sec moves, after changes at the Home Office, Cabinet Office, business department Department for International Development and, after its merger with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, at the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. There is now nothing permanent about permanent secretaries. Ministers and special advisers used to be the ones that moved more frequently.

Mocking and defrocking

Civil servants were always mocked. Take Yes, Minister,  The Thick of It and the BBC’s Brexit Behind Closed Doors. The verbal assault by the prime minister’s Chief Advisor, Dominic Cummings is the most damaging. ‘The blob’, as he has pejoratively labelled the civil service –  ‘meddles’ and blocks much-needed reform. Cumming’s aim, reasonable in itself, is to radically revise, refresh and update Whitehall operations but his tone is derisory. Another  senior No 10. aide was quoted in the Sunday Times in saying: “Covid has shown that what was supposed to be this gold-plated, first-class British civil service is not quite what it's bigged up to be”. Low praise indeed.

The civil service’s external brand image is also a problem. Many see it as metropolitan, London-centric, old-fashioned, elitist, and neither ‘civil’ nor ‘service’.  Departmental brands might be characterised as imperial/colonial, and ‘representing foreigners’ as Margaret Thatcher suggested (Foreign and Commonwealth Office), riven with inter-service rivalry for funding for overpriced materiel and equipment, running vastly expensive and frequently delayed projects (Ministry of Defence), run for the Home Counties, not the nation (Home Office), and ruling over and bullying other departments (Treasury). An aphorism in marketing is that even if these characterisations are incorrect, perception is reality.

Reform is the norm

Civil service reform has concerned governments since Sir Charles Trevelyan and Sir Stafford Northcote’s 1854 report, establishing the basis for today’s civil service. Governments have created special units to introduce reform previously, from Lloyd George’s  ‘Garden Suburb’ (1916-1922) to Tony Blair’s Performance and Innovation Unit (1998-2002). The Efficiency Unit, established in 1979, sought to reform the quality of management in government and developed an annual process of scrutinising specific departmental functions and services.  Marks & Spencer director Derek Rayner hoped to leave a generation of civil servants embracing management thinking. Blair’s frustration with the pace of change during his first term led to establishment of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit [PMDU] under Michael Barber in 2001,with departments focusing on delivery targets.

Michael Gove recently contributed a thoughtful critical assessment of the UK Civil Service in his Ditchley lecture on “the privilege of public service”. Citing Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s morbid symptoms’ of crises in the 1920s and 30s, Gove compares them to today’s challenges, concluding that to tackle them, all those in government must change. He also admonishes civil servants for their lack of mathematical, business and technical skills essential to the analysis and taking of public policy decisions.  

Should We Americanise?

Some ask whether the civil service is a barrier to the political direction of government and  call for radical administrative and constitutional change in its structure and purpose. They suggest its traditional values of political independence, permanence and meritocracy are outdated – not least Cummings himself who has called the permanent civil service ‘an idea for the history books’. Perhaps Britain should consider adopting a US style arrangement, where each new government appoints their own senior civil servants who understand their thinking, recognise their political objectives, and bring up-to-date management experience and techniques directly into government.

 The drawbacks however include  loss of institutional memory  and the task of making over 2,000 appointments every 4 years. For the UK to adopt a US-style administration would require major changes to the constitution. Not a simple task given Britain famously doesn’t have one.

Rebrand, Just Do It

But piecemeal reform of the civil service’s external image and communications won’t sort its declining image either. A thorough rebranding exercise is needed. Hammering civil servants won’t help this process at all. Service theory-based public rebranding that we recommend  is founded on an analysis of  the service  the institution aims  to  provide, how it is produced or co-created,  the locus and type of resources employed, the extent and form of its experiential nature, and its visibility towards its intended beneficiaries. The name, image, logo, message, and symbols of the brand must encompass, represent and communicate what the service is, whom it is for and what the benefits are.  The name ‘Civil Service’ was coined in the 19th century, as an alternative to military service as a career and a profession for young men – hence all the associated medals. This is hardly an appropriate nomenclature or brand for the 21st century.

Professor Michael Saren is professor of marketing & Professor Paul Baines, professor of political marketing, both at University of Leicester School of Business

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