Civil service reform: do we need more of the same?

Rod Rhodes
Rod Rhodes

Rod Rhodes discusses his article, Political anthropology and civil service reform: prospects and limits, part of the 40th anniversary special issue of Policy & Politics. The issue is available free online until the 30 November.

We think we know how to reform the public sector yet our aims are rarely realised. Undeterred, we return to the same kind of solutions. We want more rational decision making. We strive for better management that, as in the private sector, delivers economic and effective performance. Latterly, we have added the call for service delivery based on the choices of citizens acting as if consumers. This repetitive compulsive behaviour has been labelled the ‘civil service reform syndrome’ in which ‘initiatives come and go, overlap and ignore each other, leaving behind residues of varying size and style (Hood and Lodge 2007: 59). We do not need more of the same.

Ethnography offers a different approach. Life at the top is characterised by coping with rude surprises. Willed ordinariness is the goal, and being here tomorrow a marker of success. There is no one agreed view of the world. The older generalist tradition coexists with the newer managerial tradition. Top civil servants are not managers but political administrators. They must have political antennae. They need to warn the minister that there is hole ahead. After the minister has fallen in, they help him or her out of the hole. Then, they pretend the minister never fell in. They protect the minister against the goldfish bowl existence that is the present-day media (Rhodes 2011). Whether they know it or not, ministers need the civil service to provide a protective cocoon. This world is ill suited to such innovations as strategic planning and evidence based policy making. Instead, we need to preserve the best features of the historic civil service.

A key reform is to find ways of preserving institutional memory – the inherited beliefs and practices of departments – often called the ‘departmental philosophy’. Top public servants and ministers learn through the stories they hear and tell one another and such stories are a key source of institutional memory, the repositories of the traditions through which practitioners filter current events. The departmental tradition is a form of folk psychology. It provides the everyday theory and shared languages for storytelling. It is the collective memory of the department; a retelling of yesterday to make sense of today. For many observers institutional memory is under threat. The recipe for departmental Alzheimer’s is: rotate staff rapidly, change the information technology frequently, restructure every two years, reward management over other skills, and adopt each new management fad (Pollitt 2009). Record keeping, the craft of writing, the ability to spot snags, and an awareness of a department’s history are not exciting history-making activities but they are the bedrock of a permanent career civil service. It would be wise for the would-be reformers to preserve the world they are eroding before it is lost.

Hood, Christopher and Lodge, Martin 2007. ‘Endpiece: Civil Service Reform Syndrome – Are We Heading for a Cure?’ Transformation, Spring, 58-59.
Pollitt, C. (2009), ‘Bureaucracies Remember, Post-Bureaucratic Organizations Forget?’ Public Administration 87 (2), 198-218.
Rhodes, R. A. W. 2011. Everyday Life in British government. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

This blog is based on the following article: Rhodes, RAW, 2013, Political anthropology and public policy: Prospects and limits, Policy & Politics, 41, 4, 481–96, available free until 30 November 2013.