The ideal mandarin: exhuming the dead generalist?
What qualities does Letwinâ€™s ideal mandarin need? â€śItâ€™s not the double first in classics that matters itâ€™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 wonâ€™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.â€ť
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 â€“ not operators, managers, experts, lawyers, economists or judges.
Letwin was concerned that over the decades of a sustained attack on the â€śgeneralist or public administratorâ€ť we have â€ślost sight of something that is immensely valuable… I am not arguing for a lost world to be recreated, Iâ€™m arguing for it to be valued, widened and spread where it does not exist sufficiently.â€ť
He elegantly described the essential four activities for â€śadministrators in a modern liberal democracyâ€ť:
â€˘ Accumulation of knowledge: â€śwe 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.â€ť
â€˘ Transmission of decisions: â€śA 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.â€ť
â€˘ Advice: â€śthe extraordinarily difficult task of discerning the nature of the programme or objective sufficiently clearly â€“ and of gauging the effects of both government action and citizen reaction sufficiently certainly â€“ 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.â€ť
â€˘ Guardianship: â€śthis 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.â€ť
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:
â€śthe 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.â€ť
â€śover the years economists, statisticians, lawyers have been brought in, and thatâ€™s a good thing… [but] that culture has been overdone.â€ť
Compare and contrast these comments with those in the Civil Service Reform Plan published in June:
â€śthe old idea of a civil service â€™generalistâ€™ is dead â€“ everyone needs the right combination of professionalism, expert skills and subject matter expertise.â€ť
â€śin the future the leadership of the Civil Service will need to have greater operational experience and ability.â€ť
â€śIt 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.â€ť
â€śit will be increasingly important for departmental senior leaders… to have exposure and experience outside policy development, especially in policy implementation.â€ť
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:
â€śThis 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.â€ť
Others in the audience thought differently:
â€ťJowett from Balliol would be giving you three cheers… and Northcote Trevelyan. I would add my mouse like cheers as well.â€ť
Watch the video or read the transcript of Letwinâ€™s speech and decide for yourself.