Civil servants ‘have much to learn’ from Queen Elizabeth II

Jeremy Heywood’s former PPS looks at what the late monarch can teach departmental officials
The Union Flag flies at half-mast outside the Home Office's Marsham Street headquarters. Photo: Home Office

By Jim Dunton

16 Sep 2022

As the nation prepares for the funeral of its longest-serving monarch, former senior civil servant Alex Thomas has suggested departmental officials can learn crucial lessons for their own work from the conduct of Queen Elizabeth II.

Thomas, whose civil service career included a stint as principal private secretary to cabinet secretary Lord Jeremy Heywood, said the ability to take the “long view” and provide professional insight coupled with and a deep understanding of how government works were notable takeaways.

He added that an unflinching adherence to a core set of values was another hallmark of the Queen’s approach to her job with resonance for civil servants.

“Both the monarch and the civil service can shape but not control decisions,” he said in an Institute for Government blog.

“They have framing power, soft power, to set some of the terms of debate and decision. Institutional scepticism can tease out problems and mean policy decisions are better made. Neither can speak back. And ultimately both are rightly servants of democracy and the law.”

However, Thomas – who served as a director in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and held posts in the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health before joining the IfG in 2020 – acknowledged that the Queen was not herself a civil servant.

“The crown sits above the day-to-day political fray; the civil service cannot,” he said. “While both the sovereign and the civil service are ‘impartial’, the Queen’s objectivity was not that of a policy adviser setting out options for a minister, but of the crown, exercising the duty and privilege of the British monarch ‘to be consulted, to encourage and to warn’.”

Thomas said while departmental officials were “contained by ministerial control” in a way no monarch could be, staff had at least the potential to boost their standing by learning from the way the Queen fulfilled her duties and performed her role.

“The first lessons is that ‘values’, for all the mockability of the word, are real and will define a legacy,” he said.

“The Queen’s values are what we celebrate and mourn today. Public service, duty, impartiality, honesty and trust are too precious to sacrifice for short-term expediency. Civil servants should remember that.”

Thomas said a second lesson was that confidence, authority and legitimacy are borne of experience and a deep understanding of the institution of which the Queen was part.

“As the tributes this week have shown the Queen’s authority came not from God or birthright but from having been there, accumulated wisdom and then applied it,” Thomas said.

“Few officials could match her time served or sacrifices made, but a fragile civil service, reliant on transitory staffing and without a well of experience will come unstuck.”

Thomas said “stewardship” was a final lesson from the Queen’s 70-year reign – albeit one that would require significant change for officials to emulate.

“The UK’s current arrangements do not give the civil service a stewardship role,” he said. “The job description means permanent secretaries do not focus on long term planning, including for catastrophic risks, to the same extent that they focus on the policies of the day.

“And it is in the job description that a cabinet secretary is limited from stepping in if a prime minister over-reaches on propriety or legality issues.

“This should change. Stewardship is a responsibility all public servants should be able to exercise with more confidence – but, for now, that is not really how our civil service works.”

Thomas recalled the Queen telling departmental officials in 2015 that “integrity, stamina, and selfless duty, as well as essential values such as being fair, keeping one’s word, speaking the truth” were justifiable public expectations of civil servants.

“She may have been a very different public servant to those was she was addressing, but the lessons from her 70-year reign should be taken seriously – especially after the last few years of turbulence in His Majesty’s government,” he concluded.

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