A mandarin’s manual? Former DWP perm sec Sir Leigh Lewis reviews "How to be a Civil Servant"

Former Department for Work and Pensions permanent secretary Leigh Lewis finds that Martin Stanley’s new book How to be a Civil Servant offers a valuable guide, but not quite the whole picture

By Sir Leigh Lewis

16 May 2016

I still remember my first day as a civil servant; arriving in the autumn of 1973 at a rather grand if slightly fading building in St James’ Square expecting to be involved instantly in great matters of state, only to be unceremoniously dispatched to a converted furrier’s workshop in Notting Hill. There for the next year I worked, without ever really understanding what I was doing, in an occupational health section of the embryonic Health and Safety Executive.

Those first days, weeks and months were bewildering and baffling in equal measure as I attempted to come to terms with an organisation whose ways, words and working methods seemed to come from another world. If only I had had a basic primer such as Martin Stanley’s newly republished and updated volume How to be a Civil Servant.

Clearly, simply and authoritatively Stanley guides his readers through the mysteries of minutes, ministers, minders, minutiae and much more besides.

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Resisting the temptation to embellish his material with personal anecdote and self-promotion, he sets out the key ingredients which go to make up the strange world of Whitehall that aspiring entrants to its citadels need to know. His chapters on the policy process and on innovation and project management in particular have the ring of authenticity and real hands-on experience. While an index would have made it even more useful, there is more than enough here to satisfy the most demanding initiate, and much that even well-established civil servants will find helpful. A fourth volume in Biteback’s How to be series – following How to be an MP, How to be a Parliamentary Researcher and How to be a Minister – the latter which I co-authored with John Hutton – it is also likely to be of real interest to all those outside of Whitehall who want to understand its inner workings.

And yet it also feels somewhat less than the full story. First, it is all about the world of Whitehall with very little of relevance to the far greater number of civil servants in jobcentres, tax offices, the courts and many other operational areas of the civil service who may never enter the portals of SW1 but whose work is every bit as important to the citizen. That does seem an opportunity missed and rather reinforces the impression that still lives on that the “doers” of the civil service are less important than the “thinkers” and the “drafters”.

Secondly, its somewhat timeless description of the role of the civil servant does not really address some of the increasing challenges now being faced by the civil service in terms of ever greater ministerial and parliamentary expectations, ever fewer resources, and the growing number of attacks being mounted by some politicians on the whole concept of a politically neutral civil service serving, in those famous words, “the government of the day”.

For example, Stanley quotes a former minister Nick Harvey, approvingly, when he says: “I was not looking for politically biased advice but I did want advice that was politically aware; political neutrality was fine, but political naivety was unhelpful.” The problem is that ever larger numbers of ministers do now want precisely that, ie. politically driven advice, and do not want political neutrality. Look no further than at the pressures placed by both Westminster and Scottish ministers respectively on their most senior civil servants during the Scottish referendum campaign to validate their opposing views on Scottish independence.

I want to believe that Martin Stanley’s finely written, and well-judged advice to those contemplating or embarking on a Whitehall civil service career will still be relevant if he comes to write a further updated edition in another 10 years’ time. My worry is that if he does it may by then be of more interest to political historians than to whatever by then may remain of a politically neutral civil service.

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