When civil servants are made into scapegoats for political problems, we must change the narrative

There is much that the civil service can learn from the private sector, but we should also be bolder in reminding the country of the best of the civil service

Oliver Dowden infamously told civil servants to "get off their Pelotons and back to their desks". Photo: Tony Webster/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

By Ed Reza Schwitzer

21 Feb 2022

It took me a while to work out why my childhood best friend’s parents never liked me – turns out I’d been blamed for confiscated Rizlas, whisky bottles and other contraband for years without my knowledge. Another "mate" once told his then-girlfriend he only went into a seedy bar in Bulgaria to "keep me company". Sure, mate.

In politics, there is an array of scapegoats to blame your problems on – immigrants, terrorists or even people with glasses in one particularly tragic case. In Westminster, one of the most popular targets in recent times has been civil servants – whether it’s Oliver Dowden telling them to "get off their Pelotons" or Jacob Rees-Mogg suggesting civil service efficiencies (cuts) should cover the proposed national insurance hike. Or that employing so many civil servants does not provide value "because the British public helps pay for them".

There are good reasons they say these things. The most obvious it that the civil service is unable to defend itself. It is pretty much never allowed to publicly contradict anything said or done by an elected official – so it’s the easiest of targets.

The second is that it is easy to present its staff as "other". Civil servants are poorly understood. Ministers are the visible figurehead of government departments – few people know what the civil servants underneath them actually do (even amongst politicos, I have been shocked to find).

The final reason is, bluntly, there are things in the civil service that do need to change. It is perfectly legitimate to question whether the civil service’s structure provides the right amount of accountability for senior officials, whether more civil servants should be based outside of London, or whether "churn" amongst the senior civil service is too high. Sometimes I fear we flip flop too much on some of these issues – not long ago, civil servants used to be accused of staying in one job for too often and getting "siloed" in their thinking, for example. But there is certainly a debate to be had.

But the recent criticism the civil service has been subjected to is lightyears from these sensible debates. The civil service’s total paybill is around £14bn a year – so for Mr Rees-Mogg to be right about the NI increase, we’d basically have to abolish the whole civil service. I’m not sure how efficient that would be.

Mr Rees-Mogg and others are no fools – they are smart enough to know exactly what they’re saying and why. So simply responding with “that’s not true!” will not diminish the attacks in any way or lessen their impact.

"Mr Rees-Mogg and others are no fools – they are smart enough to know exactly what they’re saying and why. So simply responding with 'that’s not true!' will not diminish the attacks"

So what if, like me, you believe an impartial and effective civil service is fundamental to our democracy, and that we need to protect against these attacks? I offer three thoughts.

Firstly, former civil servants can be more vocal. There are plenty of highly intelligent, erudite former permanent secretaries and others who could do an excellent job of giving the other side of the debate.

Secondly, we must reduce the sense of "otherness". Civil servants are human beings. Having moved from the civil service to the private sector in the last six months, I can assure you that civil servants go to work much like anyone else. They have the same pride in their jobs, and the same gut-wrenching feel when things go wrong (which is often, at the moment). We need people to better understand the work of almost half a million civil servants through a lens that isn’t a clip of Yes, Minister from two decades ago. How many people know that the border force officials and jobcentre staff they interact with are civil servants? Institute for Government reports help, but I suspect their reports do not have the same level of cut through as a comment from Mr Dowden or Rees-Mogg splashed over the front pages of a tabloid.

Finally, we need to present an alternative narrative in response to more reasonable criticisms. The answer to “aren’t civil servants skiving off at home” can’t be that they’re actually superheroes who are working 60-hour weeks. The response must be realistic – that, yes, many of the issues raised are relevant to the civil service, but they’re also relevant to every large organisation. And actually, don’t most of us want to live lives where we work a reasonable number of hours and have time at the end of the day to see family or friends? There is much that the civil service can learn from the private sector, but we should also be bolder in reminding the country of the best of the civil service.

So the next time a minister blames the Rizla papers on the civil service, let’s resist the urge to cry foul, and focus more on reminding the public that these are working people who, for the most part, are much like them.

Ed Reza Schwitzer is an associate director in the education practice at Public First and a former DfE civil servant

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