A Modern British Civil Service: The Fusion of Historic Values with 21st Century Dynamism

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This article is about the fusion of the Civil Service’s traditional values with 21st century dynamism — the old with the new — to maintain and strengthen an excellent civil service for generations to come.

The traditional core values of honesty, objectivity, integrity and impartiality drive pride and professionalism across the Civil Service. These values are as integral to its work now as they ever were. But they are not enough on their own to meet the delivery challenges of the 21st century.

A stronger, more professional civil service is needed — one capable of responding to the global challenges of the 21st century. Challenges such as the emergence of China and India as low cost producers, demographic changes at home in the UK and greater expectations of what public services should deliver.

The Civil Service Code

The current Civil Service Code uses the Northcote Trevelyan report of 1854 as its inspiration and is quite clear about values. Specifically, it is not just a civil servant’s right but his or her duty to ask ‘why’ of Ministers as well as ‘how’ — to challenge them to make the best decisions.

These values are fundamental to the ongoing success of the Civil Service and the trust that Ministers, Parliament and the wider public have in it. But they do not exist in isolation from the challenges outlined. They must be developed in a way that allows them to be applied the 21st century.

The proposed new code sets out the values that are common to all civil servants wherever they might work and whatever grade they are. It is about the high standards of behaviour expected from all civil servants. Importantly, it strengthens the framework for policing the Code by proposing that the Civil Service Commissioners can, if they choose, consider complaints about breaches of the Code. It shows that the Civil Service wants to make sure that it does all in its power to keep public confidence in its values and standards. 

So what? What does the new code really mean?

Yes, Minister

The new code is intended to be a living document, to be read and understood by all civil servants. The current code begins with a 68 word sentence. The new one starts with an 11 word sentence. It is designed to be useful guidance for real-life situations and to be much more user-friendly for all civil servants. It should also connect with civil servants so they are aware that it is an explicit part of their employment contract.

But the code is just a beginning, not an end to the values of the civil service. The new code signals an outward-facing civil service, frequently delivering with and through others in the rest of the public sector, and with the voluntary and private sectors, all of whom are key partners.

The Code also signals to the citizens who fund and use public services that civil servants know they expect the best from them and that it is the duty of every civil servant to strive to meet their expectations. In practice that means that civil servants must adhere to their traditional values, but recognise that on their own they are not enough to meet the new challenges.

Flexibility, Creativity, Passion

One of our traditional values is impartiality but this has mistakenly led some to argue that civil servants must not be passionate. Passion is not only possible, but necessary. Civil servants are not robots – they are here to use their intelligence, skills, judgment and commitment to deliver good policy advice and good public services.

Lessons must also be learnt from others. People at the BBC, for instance, walk a similar tightrope to civil servants. Over the years the BBC has won much admiration for its ability to combine independence and passion. It also debates its values regularly and adjusts to changing circumstances.

But while the Civil Service’s values are non-negotiable, its relationships and methods and language must be flexible. It must be flexible enough to meet the needs of whatever democratically elected Government it serves. It is the absolute right of the Government of the day to challenge what it may see as settled ways, and it is the Civil Service’s duty to be efficient, effective and passionate in meeting those challenges.

It is right to have values and it is good to be trusted — but what are these values for? They are a means to an end and the end is improving policy formulation and the quality of the services delivered as a result of those policies.

If the Civil Service isn’t delivering what the public and Ministers expect, it isn’t going to remain relevant and it will not be able to retain confidence. In the modern world the civil service has no automatic entitlement to a monopoly on either policy advice or service provision.

The public have seen and grown used to improvements in the way the private sector serves them as customers, and it is reasonable that they have the same expectations of the public sector. The wider public sector has an added challenge in meeting such expectations — that it cannot pick and target its customers. It often has to deliver for all, including the most vulnerable and hard to reach people in society.

The fact that citizens are required to fund public services through taxation puts a moral duty on civil servants as well as a governing duty on Ministers to use those resources effectively. This is particularly so at a time of increased public spending.

This is, in effect, a huge productivity challenge for the public sector. It will become even more important to meet this as the rate of growth in public spending slows, as the British Government has indicated it will. Being efficient and customer focused is at the core of the public sector ethos because it results in better policy and better services.


Part of that effort is increasing diversity in the Civil Service. Diversity is more than a moral imperative — it is also a business imperative. On both counts, diversity matters.

Allan Leighton of the Royal Mail has overseen some fascinating research demonstrating that diversity has added £32bn to the bottom line of the 113 members of the ‘Race for Opportunity’ alliance he heads.

The civil service already does much better than the private sector on diversity, with, for example, three times as many women in senior leadership posts -  29.1% compared to 9%. Diversity is about getting the best people in the right jobs: bringing in and bringing on talented people from a wide range of backgrounds.

The Civil Service is rightly proud of its tradition of fair, open competition and appointment on merit, but it hasn’t yet achieved sufficient diversity in top jobs. There is no skirting around that fact. By improving diversity the talent pool is broadened and greater insight is gained into the society being served.

The Civil Service, and civil servants, need strong and clearly articulated values to believe in, ones they can be proud to uphold. Without that sense of purpose it is much harder to deliver anything that is asked of them. This is a fast changing world. We need strong values and stronger capability to deliver if we are to ensure the sort of dynamism that will keep the Civil Service strong and relevant in the 21st century.

This is based on a speech delivered at the Guardian Public Services Summit on 27 January 2006.

View the new draft British Civil Service Code. View the existing Code.

View the Australian Public Service Code of Conduct.

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