Rewriting the Civil Service code

What if the Civil Service code looked like this:

We implement and develop government policies and deliver public services.

We report to ministers, who report to Parliament, who ultimately answer to the public.

We should work for public gain, not personal gain. Advice should be based on facts, not political persuasion, and be as accurate as possible. We are also politically neutral in public.

We behave professionally and politely.

Why bother rewriting the Civil Service code?

A friend who is about to start working in government asked me something about the Civil Service code the other day, which reminded me that I wrote a new version when I was at GDS.

When I came to the UK to study in 1999, I didn’t know what a “civil servant” was, or why anyone would want to be one. Ella-of-the-past is unlikely to be the only person who doesn’t know what civil servants do, or where they fit within the UK government.

I happen to know that’s true. I had colleagues (thoughtful, intelligent people committed to public service), who weren’t sure about what they could or couldn’t do or say, or were confused about questions like why civil servants aren’t elected. The Civil Service is trying to become a more inclusive and diverse place to work. But if people on the inside aren’t certain about what they can and can’t do, or how their work fits within government, people on the outside are going to find it even harder.

The existing Civil Service code doesn’t make that any clearer. It’s a palimpsest of endless negotiations, redefining language to suit government. If you have to add multiple bullet points of definitions below commonly used terms, you’ve created your own understandings of them.

It’s also full of reasons to wonder or worry why some things needed spelling out. See: “the importance of co-operation and mutual respect between civil servants working for the UK government and the devolved administrations and vice-versa”. (Now imagine having been in that meeting.) Sometimes, saying everything you can think of means you’re actually explaining very little, and obfuscating too much.

Thought experiments about how words matter

One of the things we did in my old team was make things that made people think differently about what government is and does.

Some of them worked, some didn’t.

We didn’t publish this one because [reasons]. It’s not meant to be inspirational, it’s meant to be useful; an attempt at a collective bureaucratic language to clarify, not obscure.

It’s not an accident that it doesn’t mention any terms associated with “digital” or “tech”, and that it’s serious in tone. I’m still struggling, with many others, about how to write for times when progress narratives seem irrevocably broken. Personality matters, but it’s not all that matters. I spent most of my twenties living in China and the United States, and while I loved aspects of both countries, living in either a collectivist one party state, or a presidential system which glorifies individualism, is not for me. I want a government that is accountable, not aspirational. It’s what I, a foreigner, understand to be the benefit of a non-political government bureaucracy.

I like that it’s not principles for actions, because actions are only ever one part of working somewhere, and that it links back to the democratic role of civil servants. It feels like it could be an internal monologue. (I have many of those.) Of course, I can critique it: “facts” implies we can stand outside interpretation, for example, which I don’t believe to be true (though the limitation of “as accurate as possible” is nice). But it’s a good first stab.

A couple of years later, I still like it.

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