The ideal mandarin: exhuming the dead generalist?

21 September 2012

The Civil Service Reform Plan signalled a serious appetite for reform: “the old idea of a civil service 'generalist' is dead – everyone needs the right combination of professionalism, expert skills and subject matter expertise.” In a remarkable speech at the IfG recently Oliver Letwin painted a very different picture of his ideal mandarin.

What qualities does Letwin’s ideal mandarin need? “It’s not the double first in classics that matters it’s the attitude of mind that matters… it is important to… see that attitude of mind as one we want to celebrate… Unless the intellect is formed in a certain way… that person won’t be able to be a civil servant of the kind that I am talking about. I would go for character as well as intellectual prowess in my civil servant and not worry too much about the discipline they have been brought up in.”

He was careful to define mandarins as no more than 20,000, or 5%, of the Civil Service. He said they needed to be administrators – not operators, managers, experts, lawyers, economists or judges.

Letwin was concerned that over the decades of a sustained attack on the “generalist or public administrator” we have “lost sight of something that is immensely valuable… I am not arguing for a lost world to be recreated, I’m arguing for it to be valued, widened and spread where it does not exist sufficiently.”

He elegantly described the essential four activities for “administrators in a modern liberal democracy”:

Accumulation of knowledge: “we too often forget that the functioning of a modern liberal state depends… on the maintenance of settled process. …this depends on having administrators to keep track of what the processes are.”

Transmission of decisions: “A minister… is in principle capable of making any number of decisions. But without someone to transmit those decisions they would remain poetical aspirations rather than actions. Administrative civil servants at their worst can, defeat ministerial objectives, just by ensuring that when the minister had decided to act nothing actually happens.”

Advice: “the extraordinarily difficult task of discerning the nature of the programme or objective sufficiently clearly – and of gauging the effects of both government action and citizen reaction sufficiently certainly – to be able to advise the minister accurately on which specific policy objective will be most likely to achieve the objective… We need civil servants who will give well informed, fearless advice… But if the minister rejects the advice, then we need [them] to transmit and implement the ministerial decision …energetically and effectively… This is by no means an easy task for a human being to perform.”

Guardianship: “this is the most problematic… in this role they act on behalf of the crown to ensure that the government as a whole acts with propriety and in conformity with the law… an altogether different role as servants not of ministers but of the crown, accountable to parliament.”

As he expanded his views on the characteristics and experience of people who would be best fitted to the role of public administrator he departed significantly from the arguments and tone of the Civil Service Reform Plan:

“the work of the administrative civil service is not the same sort of thing as operational activity. …we must never allow ourselves to be gulled by the crude falsehood that all would be for the best in the best of all possible worlds if only all administrative civil servants were to be trained in some other profession or were to spend more time reading books written by management consultants.”

“over the years economists, statisticians, lawyers have been brought in, and that’s a good thing… [but] that culture has been overdone.”

Compare and contrast these comments with those in the Civil Service Reform Plan published in June:

“the old idea of a civil service ’generalist’ is dead – everyone needs the right combination of professionalism, expert skills and subject matter expertise.”

“in the future the leadership of the Civil Service will need to have greater operational experience and ability.”

“It should no longer be possible for civil servants to get to very senior levels without having worked outside of a single department or the centre of government, or having worked in more than one type of role.”

“it will be increasingly important for departmental senior leaders… to have exposure and experience outside policy development, especially in policy implementation.”

It is hard to image any cabinet secretary from Richard Wilson onwards making the same argument as Letwin for the characteristics required in the most senior civil servants. From the audience former serial permanent secretary Richard Mottram articulated what was in the minds of many of the serving civil servants in the room:

“This is a defence and an exposition of a concept that has been under sustained attack for the last 50 years… if a civil servant had said what you said this evening they would have been held up to ridicule frankly.”

Others in the audience thought differently:

”Jowett from Balliol would be giving you three cheers… and Northcote Trevelyan. I would add my mouse like cheers as well.”

Watch the video or read the transcript of Letwin’s speech and decide for yourself.

Share this post:

Comments (5)

  1. Colin Talbot on 21 September 2012 at 12:01 pm

    Oliver Letwin’s four roles are not at all dissimilar to the four I have used in evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee and the House of Lords Constitution Committee.

  2. Su Bonfanti on 21 September 2012 at 1:56 pm

    It’s an unusual experience to find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with Oliver Letwin but here goes: three cheers for his definition and defence of what civil service administration means! And thank goodness it was he who said it, because I agree with Richard Mottram that it would be a brave civil servant who did so.
    A couple of years ago, I left the civil service after a career of 30 years, more than half in the senior civil service. If I hadn’t left then I would almost certainly have done so within a year or so, as almost everyone over 50 has now left my former department as staff numbers have been cut. And this matters because in large part only those with some years under their belt are likely to have the characteristics and skills Oliver Letwin describes.
    This is not because younger staff lack ability or because a wholly different type of person has been attracted and recruited into the service. Rather it is because younger civil servants will have operated under Ministers and senior staff who have been promoting the idea that we should all be specialists and that there is no ‘generalist’ role. It has been difficult, if not impossible, for civil servants at around grade 7 level to get the kind of extended experience that was available to me and that provided a bedrock of knowledge and understanding.
    So just when the attitude of mind Letwin describes and the experience that both formed it and made use of it is most needed, it will be least available. As to what to do, well, it would help if more ministers and top officials simply espoused these views. And then in working out what kind of training and experience helps, how about talking to some old timers about what formed them? It may not be possible to replicate that kind of career now, so much has changed, but it would be a starting point.

  3. Mark O'Sullivan on 2 October 2012 at 4:17 pm

    There is no incompatibility between the two approaches. The virtues which Letwin describes are the traditional ones of the administrative civil servant. But on the occasions in the past when administrative civil servants have failed in them, it has often been because they have lacked certain kinds of expertise, such as experience of operational management or of the use of the scientific method. In short, when generalists have not succeeded, it has not been because they have not been specialists, but because they have been insufficiently generalist: their drafting, their intellect and their political sense have been excellent, but they have not more widely developed the more practical aspects of their calling as they should have done.
    Too many brilliant young men and women have left Oxford to join the service with a double first in Classics, but been allowed to stick close to the very visible levers of power in Whitehall, and avoid a spell as finance director of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre in Swansea, or as team leader in the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. We are left, as so often in these debates, with the Fulton Report, and the conclusion that it was not tried, and failed, but was found difficult, and not tried.

  4. David Laughrin on 12 October 2012 at 11:04 am

    Oliver Letwin’s talk to the IfG is, as his reputation suggests, both thoughtful and stimulating. But I wonder if the insights he has into the skills required in support of Ministers might be a little obscured by his use of terms which in this decade sound rather dated language. Even as someone recruited to what was then “the Administrative Class” of the civil service, I would not want to go back to the days when that term, and the concept of civil servants advising Ministers being thought of as “administrators”, was revived. This seems too limited, passive, and pen-pushing a description for the digital age.

    I think we have rightly moved on from that era to one where the specialism developed amongst graduate and other recruits is a professionalism perhaps better defined as public policy analysis and implementation. The skills that Oliver Letwin identifies are certainly those needed within this profession, though like Roger Dawe in the IfG discussion I would want to add the element of subject specific knowledge and experience, in addition to the “process” knowledge and experience that Oliver Letwin outlined.

    I would also want to unpack his concept of “transmission” to make clearer that I presume he intended it as closer to a motoring than a radio analogy. So transmission skills would not just be about “broadcasting” and helping to define clearly Ministers’ decisions but would include those skills that involve making sure that intention is translatable and translated into delivery. My hunch – encouraged by an insightful year running a social security office in the 1980s- is that as others have said, such skills only come with experience of delivery. I would also want to add in something about the ability to manage and inspire those charged with delivery, and the expenditure and infrastructure it entails, which cannot be left to Ministers alone.

    Nonetheless, I hope very much that the Letwin contribution is not lost in the ongoing debate about civil service reform. I would, however, suggest that some development of its language and the basic model might help make it even more valuable.

  5. peter thomas on 12 October 2012 at 3:51 pm

    David – interesting reflections. Your most telling point is “I would also want to add in something about the ability to manage and inspire those charged with delivery”. The absence of the word management is to ignore every challenge to the civil service’s capability since, and including, the Fulton Report in 1968.

Tags:

Blog: Permalink