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‘My day in the civil service’, or ‘How good people can (unknowingly) do bad things’

On September 14th, I had the opportunity to spend a day at the Home Office, as part of NCVO Forum for Change’s voluntary/public sector work shadowing exchange. As someone who spends a lot of time critiquing bureaucracy, but without any personal experience of the civil service, it seemed like a great chance to learn how much of the urban mythology about the public sector was an accurate reflection, and how much was the stuff of a previous era, not yet cleansed from the collective memory.


Home OfficeThose who know me wouldn’t expect to find me wandering around a government department, yet, on September 14th, I was given the chance to meet seven Home Office staff members (and one local authority ‘secondee’), from a range of teams, and at least a few different salary grades.  Much credit goes to my hostess, for her excellent work arranging a busy schedule to give me a sense of what the Home Office looked like from several internal perspectives.

What I’ve been trying to determine ever since, is how the good people I met, are able to be part of an institution which creates so much ugliness.  Whether in the form of policing of activism, criminalising young people, or indirectly promoting racism via immigration policies, the people I met did not seem like the kinds of people that would make these sorts of things happen.

What I did notice, however, (with the notable exceptions of a colleague from the Neighbourhood Policing Team/ Policing Reform Unit, and a seconded Oldham council staff person) was a distinct disconnect between action and reaction, or the work that was being done, and the impacts that were happening, as a result, in the real world.  Which is what I want to start picking apart…


This revelation is probably unsurprising to most. It is one of the hallmarks of the urban mythology surrounding the civil service, but may, I realise, be deeply offensive (for which I apologise) to many of the people I met, who felt confident that their work was good, honest, fair, but still, whose outcomes were often still anything but…

So how does this disconnect occur? How do those assembling the bomb get the impression their individual efforts are part of a collective good, when outsiders can clearly see the destructive effects of these efforts?

What follows are a few observations and my interpretations of them. They may or may not have value, but thought they would be worth putting out, for the sake of discussion…

‘Collective ego’

Though there was little sense of individual egos at play in my conversations, there seemed to be an overarching collective one present.  This seems a contradiction of terms, but what I mean is, though those I met did nothing to unduly elevate themselves as people, there was an unwavering sense of the Department’s collective ‘correctness’ in effectively addressing complex national issues, even when responses to those issues clearly shifted with political currents (and recently, parties).  Was there a sense that ID cards were ‘correct’ under Labour, but then ‘incorrect’ under the Coalition? What might be framed as ‘learning’ within the departmental context, appeared to be nothing more than a collective rationalisation (always backed by a detailed evidence base) of a different political perspective.

Who asks the questions?

So it did not seem to come across as a drastic shift when a previous Minister asked the Department’s researchers and policy analysts “What are the economic benefits migrant workers bring to the UK?”, and then their successor asked “What is the appropriate level for an immigration cap?” Each of these questions encompasses a political attitude (built on certain assumptions), meaning the results will invariably reinforce that attitude, no matter how ‘objective’ the research and policy defining them are able to be. The answers produced can only be as varied as the constraints posed by the facilitating questions. So if you’re asked the question about the migration cap, your research will focus on the pros-and-cons of different migration caps, rather than the inherent value of a migration cap, more generally.

Finding value in our work…

This gives those in the Office the fair sense that their work is not about simply justifying a political perspective, as within the question posed, they have honestly tested each of the possible answers, without bias.  This provides a sense of meaning, which is something all of us seek in our work.  Working in restaurants for several years as a means of funding my community work and music in Canada (which gave my time behind the bar a sense of purpose), I met career bartenders who had been able to ‘give meaning’ to the order in which drink mixes were arranged in a bar fridge.  This made no sense to those of us passing through the jobs, but provided a sense of meaning to those who had made a career of serving drinks and needed to give their efforts a sense of importance to be able to justify the time they spent there.  Which ties into the next idea…


Marsham St Home Office

The Home Office, from Wiki Visuals

My colleague Paul Barasi described this concept (as he does so many things) like a game of chess: If you look at your next two moves, you can give yourself the impression of a likely victory, even if you are in fact setting yourself up for a checkmate on the third move.  Most of the legwork at the Home Office (like most larger institutions) is carried out by people a reasonable distance from those asking the types of framing questions listed above, therefore individual’s ‘horizons’ are generally set not with the endpoint of a policy or law in mind, but with the point to which their manager takes responsibility for the actions (finalising a data set, writing interview questions, getting a report approved, etc).  The ‘horizons’ of the job then, allow individuals to work towards what they feel is a positive ‘endpoint’ (ensuring a good report is produced), without questioning either the justification for that ‘endpoint’, or where it might go next (i.e. – the impact of the report, on a law, on peoples’ lives).

These limited ‘horizons’ disconnect the personal actions from the collective result – distancing the she or he doing the deed, from some element of responsibility for the real world impact. This applies to both positive and negative responsibility; the former in relation to the lost sense of ‘credit’ described by Marx’s ‘Alienation of Labour’, the latter as described in Mark Akbar’s ‘The Corporation’ as how corporate board members avoid personal guilt for their company’s crimes.

…So when the (party-political) Prime Minister says: “We want British jobs for British people.”

…Then the (party-political) Minister says: “We need an immigration cap to ensure British jobs go to British people.”

…And the (‘party-neutral’) Chief Economist says: “What is an appropriate immigration cap to ensure there are enough job vacancies for all unemployed British citizens?”

…And the (‘party-neutral’) Senior Economic Researcher says: “How many less immigrants do we need next year to ensure unemployed British citizens will be able to fill upcoming job vacancies?”

…And horizons’ of the person attached to each descending salary grade are reduced accordingly, along with a personal sense of either credit or accountability for their actions.

An offer?

On an issue where I’ve had some experience (youth gang violence), I offered my opinions and the potential to continue the conversation in more detail another time, or to put the department in touch directly with people I know with more firsthand experience of such concerns. In this situation I was dismissed (I have since sent a follow-up email and will add a comment to this piece if I get a reply), seemingly without thought on what, say, local activists dealing with youth violence might think about the Home Office’s attempts to curb knife crime.

This felt (very aware of the subjectivity here) that they had all the knowledge they needed, in-house, and weren’t interested in involving people from the outside in these discussions, even though I saw minimal evidence of in-depth engagement with community perspectives on this crucial concern.

When I brought up a meeting I facilitated three years ago, in which sixteen London community leaders (early-twenties-to-early-fifties, and all black) involved in youth violence issues agreed unanimously that government wanted to impede effective youth programmes, to keep their communities oppressed, they seemed to have never come across this level of cynicism before. When I challenged them on how significant that mistrust was, to getting honest information and building partnerships, it was not seen as something that needed to be actively addressed.


The emphasis in expertise (perhaps this was more a reflection of the people I met?) was very disproportionately economic. As Dougald Hine picks apart, when seen in isolation (from the social, the cultural, the political, the spiritual, etc) economics can provide a very damaging understanding of the world, which is able to justify a range of activities as ‘positive’ (due to their economic benefits), when any more holistic lens would see the inherently negative consequences of, say, (as Dougald highlights) the industrial revolution on British workers.

Further, as Henry Mintzberg describes in ‘The Soft Underbelly of Hard Data’, the ‘hard science’ of economic measurement can often be based on limited information and a series of assumptions:

“Something is always lost in the process of quantification… As Eli Devons (1950:Ch. 7) described in his fascinating account of planning for British aircraft production during World War II, ‘despite the arbitrary assumptions made’ in the collection of some data, ‘once a figure was put forward… it soon become accepted as the “agreed figure”, since no one was able by rational argument to demonstrate that it was wrong… And once the figures were called “statistics”, they acquired the authority and sanctity of Holy Writ’ (155).” [Mintzberg, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, The Free Press, 1994]

While there remain innumerable ‘experts’ on a range of Home Office related issues in neighbourhoods across the country, there seemed to be little interest in hearing from these people and having them play a part in shaping the policies that are likely to affect them. I made several offers to help bridge these worlds, but felt largely ignored. If that comes across as bitter, it’s probably because it is – not for my own dismissal, but for the rejection of people I know who have experienced youth violence and racist policing first hand, but who have remained marginalised from the discussions that will invariably affect their lives.

Maybe this is all unfair

This may all be unfair on my part. I spent one day there with no previous experiences of the civil service. I have attempted to understand my experience there, in the context of my own thinking around organisations and human behaviour, though claim that in no way these represent truths – just the explanations I (at this point) feel make the most sense of these things. I’d been keen to hear the thoughts (by name, or anonymously) of those who have spent more time in Whitehall, past or present, and if any of these ideas resonate, or if I’ve simply drawn far too much from a very limited experience…

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Posted in power and professionalism and public sector and Uncategorized.


12 Replies

  1. Roxanne Persaud @commutiny says ‘Mild title belies the great radical thinking’ (29/9/10).

    I think Home Office should jump at the chance to improve performance and enhance their organisational culture. Their doors are certaibly more open than I’m finding at the Foreign Office!

  2. Liam Barrington-Bush Sep 29th 2010

    I would hope so too!

    Perhaps if anyone from the Home Office is reading this, some anonymous feedback on the blog would shed some ‘insider’ light on my commentary?

  3. Having worked a bit in the public sector (health care in Ontario) I have some sympathy with the bureaucrats. They work within a framework that is defined by the politicians and particularly by the politicians’ acute fear of bad press. To riff on one of your examples, how do you think the conversation would go if a senior bureaucrat were to respond to a minister’s request for a policy on gang violence by suggesting that the real problem that needed to be tackled was police racism? No minister; Labour, Tory or LD would touch that with a barge pole. Survival within the bureaucracy means coming to terms with the fact that evidence based policy making will always be trumped by the need for flashy headlines and sops for the party’s electoral base.

  4. Liam Barrington-Bush Sep 30th 2010

    Hi John –

    Thanks for your thoughts… While your comments are not surprising, they are also clearly quite damning of the institutions of government. While I wouldn’t make a direct assertion that racist policing caused gang violence, I would suggest it plays a (significant) role; if any government is unable to address this, due to political worries, there is a fairly substantial democratic crisis afoot…

    If indeed, a civil servants job is focused primarily on ‘survival within the bureaucracy’, something fundamental needs to change.

    The question that comes to mind for me, is, if the above is true, who benefits from this arrangement? It seems a likely place to start if we are to begin to figure out an alternative…

  5. It’s true that I think the disfunctionality of the bureaucracy is a symptom of a deeper, structural problem with the political system and therefore probably not addressable without addressing the wider issues.

    The root of the problem, and this seems now to be common to all parliamentary systems, is excessive concentration of power and policy making in the hands of the PM (premier whatever) and a handful of political advisers of very limited experience and outlook. Link that to an obsession with ‘spin’ and a rather ugly symbiotic relationship between politicians and press and it becomes very hard to get anything constructive done. Social policy doesn’t reduce easily to 30 second sound bites and complex problems are not best solved by 20 somethings who have no experience outside of party politics.

    The depths of ignorance displayed by policy wonks of considerable power are pretty amazing. One here (in the Premier’s office) in Toronto not so long ago suggested scrapping trying to build an Electronic Health Record system because “we could just dump all the data into a big database and Google it”. I kid you not.

    Who benefits from this? The kind of people who can claw their way to the top of the heap by pandering to people’s less attractive side I guess. It works for the likes of Tony Blair and Stephen Harper. Not so well for the rest of us maybe.

  6. Liam Barrington-Bush Sep 30th 2010

    While I don’t disagree with anything you’re saying, I wonder how widespread this view is within the civil service (in any country)? Because I didn’t get any sense of this kind of cynicism where I was – this would have been very different from the seeming confidence in the integrity of the work that I kept coming across.

    My gut instinct is that more people would ‘snap’ – in whatever form – if they shared your (I think, justified) understanding of the work, and the system would become untenable, but this obviously isn’t the case.

    So what is it that gets people through the day, not just coasting, but with some seeming sense of pride in their efforts, even when the results don’t match up with peoples’ articulated beliefs?

  7. Because I didn’t get any sense of this kind of cynicism where I was

    Were the people you were dealing with senior and experienced? I have had very serious conversations with senior members of the OPS about the near impossibility of getting sensible policy and legislation through. (Best example from my field, Ontario has spent 12+ years developing a Lab Information System. They still haven’t created the regulations that would let anyone access the data in it! It’s not sexy and it isn’t on the Premier’s agenda so it doesn’t happen.)

    If the people you were dealing with were relatively young and inexperienced I think the disconnect is easy to understand. When one is young it’s quite easy to think one is making a positive difference when really one is just spinning the hamster wheel. After all, the truth is too awful to think about too hard. I was like that once!

    Also, a lot of people do quit because they can’t take the cognitive dissonance. The OPS had a major outflow of young talent during the Harris years for that very reason.


    The gap between who civil servants really are and who they are at work is the biggest for any line of work I have ever encountered.

    ● There is a vital need to make government departments more like people.

    I remember when training civil servants, three of the group took me aside individually to tell me they wanted to change how things were done but hadn’t spoken out in the session as nobody else would have agreed with them. I still wonder how many of the others thought the same.


    Some of what happens is hard to explain. The Office for Civil Society is an odd place. For one thing, independent organisations are expected to change along with them whenever they alter their name, and so we have VCOs, then TSOs, now CSOs and coming soon … BSOs? Do they get out of the office? Maybe to a housing estate where they use megaphones to call up civil society organisations – just how many would realise they meant them?

    Anyway, these guys were supposed to make cuts Compact-compliant and failed right across government. Then the PM had to say: don’t cut voluntary groups. Was this cohesive government? Were they on message? Why did they let it happen without first assessing the impact? It’s the culture!


    Foreign Office officials are accountable to ministers who are accountable to Parliament and we are represented by our MP. It sounds a healthy democratic set up, but it isn’t all top down from politicians to officials. Civil servants do the briefing and they have a strong departmental line that often drives ministers. And officials shape policy without engaging with people, without dealing with correspondence in anywhere like an accountable way, without permitting people any real dialogue or input on foreign policy.

    ● Even when I offered the FCO free consultancy on improving engagement I got no reply – prompting Liam Barrington-Bush to say “You couldn’t make it up!”

    Indeed, when a policy change is considered it is now often done by secret review without external access or input. This is so for current reviews on extradition (Home Office), Overseas Territories (FCO) and Trident value for money (MoD). It happens because that’s the culture.

    So if you are, say, Gary McKinnon waiting for a decade for justice here rather than being hauled before the US courts. Or if you are a few thousand Black British Chagossians waiting 40 years for their human rights, instead of their homeland being used as a US bombing base. Or if you’re even in the majority of British people opposed to replacing Trident, which is leased from the US and considered by them part of their own nuke warhead stockpile – then that’s just tough.

    The system may be there for you just as long as the decisions are taken not because they are right or fair, but serve the interests of the USA – as all three examples have done for years. And what does the American President have to say about all this?

    ● Barack Obama said recently “the common thread of progress is the principle that government is accountable to its citizens.”


    The trouble with our democracy is that it is all done passively via second-hand relationships through ministers and MPs. If we want government that makes better decisions that are relevant, well-informed and supported by the people then officials need to be less insular, more outward looking and properly accountable to the people. We need open government which allows the people in, to influence, scrutinise and debate. We need to break the civil service culture.

    ● Just how to achieve this is the question – but it must be part of the Big Society revolution.

  9. Liam Barrington-Bush Oct 2nd 2010

    Hi John –

    Was indeed mostly younger staff I was in touch with… may very well explain part of it, re: ‘too awful to think about’.

    I wonder if there will be a similar effect on the UK civil service, since the Tories got into power and have slash-and-burned the public sector, explicitly following the Chretien/Martin Canadian model of deficit-cutting?

    I may have had my day there too early into the govt shift, for the impacts to have hit home with staff yet…

  10. Liam Barrington-Bush Oct 2nd 2010

    Paul – as usual, you are a fountain of knowledge. Your experiences in the public and voluntary sectors give you some major insights into these questions…

    The Culture or The Cult of Professionalism? Seems like there’s a real fear of being seen to step out of line – not wanting to say anything that could have you pegged as not entirely behind the moves of the day… I wonder how exactly that concern emerges? Would it be the same at a time when jobs are plentiful?

    Another thing I noticed several times during my day at the Home Office was the sense of urgency amongst staff, and a couple of comments to the affect of ‘we have to be fast to keep up with the speed things move here’… I found this very strange, as one of the hallmarks of government, from the outside, is the snail’s pace that decisions often seem to happen at. Yet, inside, there was a clear feeling of being rushed. And I wonder if this explains some of the non-Compact compliance in how cuts have been made? A sense of ‘we don’t have time’ because they are constantly given very tight deadlines, even for decisions that won’t be finalised for many months? Compact is not being considered at a high enough level to be implemented as part of a longer-term decision-making process, and by the time people lower in the ranks get their assignments, it’s too late?

    Also, re: Better Government. Direct connections between people at all levels of government (elected and not) to the streets and estates, could be a good starting point… but then we get the culture/cult again, which puts Eric Pickles in a £70K tax-funded, chauffeur-driven Jaguar he demanded, which is probably about as disconnecting an experience as one can have from the real world. Is there a means of breaking down some of those divides, which would be seen as less threatening by those in government? A Trojan Horse that could convince a range of officers and ministers to spend a night on a council estate? Live off benefits for a week? Spend a day working a manual labour job for low-wages? These may be extreme examples, but anything that could honestly give people in these positions a more first-hand knowledge of the impacts of their work could only be a good thing…

  11. Margaret Sep 24th 2015


    What you experienced in one day captures it correctly. In the public sector there is too much talk and no action. I work in a quango and I find that in the public sector theres this awkward formality that puts up barriers between people and make them not like each other. When you can’t even be informal and relaxed with your own colleagues, how are you going to have the energy to want to serve the public?

  12. Margaret Sep 24th 2015

    What you experienced in one day captures it correctly. In the public sector there is too much talk and no action. I work in a quango and I find that in the public sector theres this awkward formality that puts up barriers between people and make them not like each other. When you can’t even be informal and relaxed with your own colleagues, how are you going to have the energy to want to serve the public?

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