Why So Serious? A day in the life of a civil servant

I don’t plan to join the ranks of those who for a brief period worked alongside the civil service and, having failed to make any meaningful contribution whatsoever felt themselves qualified to opine on its shortcomings (yes, Digby Jones, I’m talking about you). The truth is that the civil service is stuffed to the rafters with thoughtful, intelligent, conscientious people who do their very best to give their political masters what they want, whilst being pilloried in the media by those who find it expedient to blame their own failures on officials who are constitutionally prevented from answering back. bureaucracy

That is not to say, however, that the civil service is faultless. After 17 years of working within it, my humble opinion is that its fundamental problem – contrary to what Yes, Minister would have you believe – lies in its treatment of every part of the business of government with equal and total seriousness. In short, it lacks a sense of perspective and occasionally – and worse – a sense of humour.

Whilst names have been changed to protect the innocent, the following is a 100% faithful account of what happened when an area of policy responsibility recently moved from one Whitehall Department to another. For the uninitiated, the following is a quick guide to who’s who in Government bureaucracy:

Secretary of State: Minister who heads a department of State and is a member of the Cabinet. Usually addressed as Secretary of State for X & Y policy area, unless the Department they lead has delusions of grandeur, in which case they are the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary or Home Secretary.

Permanent Secretary: Civil servant who leads the department. Responsible for delivering what Ministers want and accountable to Parliament for achieving value for money for taxpayers. Also has the happy task of deciding what to do when those two things are mutually exclusive.

Director General: Civil servant who is one layer down from the Perm Sec. Responsible for a large area of policy, or for all corporate issues (finance, legal etc). In almost all cases, whatever collection of things they are responsible for is known as a “Group”.

 

Following a machinery of government change, the Department for Administrative Affairs has inherited a new policy responsibility – staplers. Of course, it will need a new strategy and set of initiatives to demonstrate why the previous department was so rubbish and that things are going to be different in stapler world now that the DAA’s in charge. But first things first: the bit of the department into which stapler policy has been absorbed – the Hole Punch and Envelope File Group – needs a new name to reflect its new responsibilities.

The Hole Punch and Envelope File Group’s strategy team swings into action. Advice is written covering options. The person leading the stapler policy team is asked to comment on it – should staplers be added to the title, or would it be better to start with a clean slate – say, the Stationery Efficiency Group? Great minds apply themselves to the question.

A second version of the advice is circulated with a request for the stapler policy lead to comment again. She does.

Time passes.

Everyone is still sitting in their old seats, but a pop-up banner has appeared in their bit of the office announcing to visitors that they are now entering the territory of the Hole Punch and Envelope File Group. The stapler team are restive – is their work going to be any more important to HPEFG than it was to their previous group?

Overnight, a post-it note is stuck to the banner. It reads, in red biro, “AND STAPLERS”.

The stapler policy lead asks whether there’s any news. There isn’t.

More time passes.

Then one afternoon she sees an email attaching a four page document: advice on a new name and mission statement is being submitted to the Permanent Secretary. The covering message notes reassuringly that checks have been made, and it is certain that any changes to HPEFG’s title do not need to be announced to Parliament.

More time passes.

Then one day another email appears: the Director General has discussed the matter with the Permanent Secretary, who has discussed it with the Secretary of State. They have concluded that the new name of the group should be…

The Hole Punch, Envelope File and Staplers Group.

The stapler policy lead allows herself a little smile and taps out an email to her team to let them know the good news. At last, staplers are on the map! (Though not literally, because you’re not allowed to stick anything on the walls in the open plan.)

Ping!

Barely has she pressed send when up pops another email. This one is from the Director General’s office and it has a red exclamation mark next to it. The stapler policy lead opens it at once. It reads:

“I’m sure I don’t need to tell anyone this, but please do not tell your teams about the Group’s name change yet. The comms team are currently working up a communications strategy to manage this.”

The stapler policy lead goes into the ladies loos and rocks quietly back and forth.

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