Frank Litton on policy-making, the civil service and the malaise of Ireland's democracy.

Pity the Senior Civil Servant – Rewriting the Ministers and Secretaries Act

Sep 26, 12 • The Public SectorNo Comments

Problems with the political/administrative interface

Minister Pat Rabbite does not believe that the crisis reveals weaknesses in our design for democracy. One might have expected his left wing background to predispose him to structural explanations. Not in this matter: he opts for agency – the system was not the problem, Fianna Fail was. Nonetheless he does believe that the relationship between ministers and civil servants deserves examination. Senior civil servants were not held to account for their failures that contributed to the crisis because their responsibilities are not clearly spelt out. The Government agrees with him and is committed to legislation that will clarify relationships and spell out responsibilities. I suppose the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform are working on that legislation. Perhaps the following will help them.

Most agree that there is a problem with the civil servant and accountability. The ‘permanent government’ exercises its power in the shadows, remote from the spotlight. However, I argue that the problem is not a lack of accountability. Civil servants are held to account for their actions. It is the balance among the demands made upon them that is the problem.

The first step in my argument is to point to the link between accountability and justification. To be accountable for something is to be open to the demand that you justify your actions in regard to it. You must be prepared to answer the questions ‘why did you that?’ or ‘why did you fail to do this?’ For example, the civil servant is required to advise his minister and so he must be prepared to answer the question ‘why this (poor) advice?’ As the senior civil servant works through the day, he cannot but be mindful of the variety of different justifications he could be called on to provide. In this post, I sketch this variety and indicate the problems that it poses.

This route was prompted by a remarkable work by the French sociologists Luc Bolatanski and Laurent Thevenot, On Justification: Economies of Worth (Boltanski & Thevenot, 2006). This book is an important episode in sociology’s pragmatic turn. As I discussed in my first post, the challenge is to find an analysis that balances the imperatives of structure with the powers of human agency. We always act in situations whose demands and constraints we cannot ignore. Luc Boltanski and his colleagues observe that demands for justification are commonplace in the world of action. We regularly find ourselves making or answering claims. We believe that we have been unfairly treated, or we must answer accusations that we have treated somebody unfairly. In these situations both agency and structure are brought into focus. Not by the sociologist looking down on the actors from the superior perspective of science, but by the actors themselves. In justifying my actions I do not excuse them as the consequence of irresistible determinations. I attempt to argue, with supporting evidence, that they were acceptable in the given circumstances. Boltanksi and his colleagues have researched such situations. Their analysis can I believe throw a clear light on the dilemmas of our senior civil servants. Of course, I cannot do justice to the complexity and subtlety of their analysis in a short post. However, I hope that I can do enough to indicate the contribution that it can make to our understanding of accountability and the civil servant.

Boltanski and Thevenot observe that justifications regardless of the circumstances in which they are offered have features in common. When I claim that I have been unfairly treated, I am not saying ‘ouch’, I do not like what you have done to me. Nor I am saying that my interests have been frustrated. I am making a general claim the an individual with ‘qualifications’ a,b,c should not be treated in the way X. Since I have qualifications a,b,c, and I have been treated X, I have been unfairly treated. The term ‘qualifications’ may appear odd, or awkward. I am tempted to replace it with ‘characteristics’ or ‘attributes’. However this will not do. For one of Boltanski’s and Thevenot’s main findings is that in the course of daily life, we inhabit quite different worlds each with its own particular mode of justification. We carry our characteristics or attributes from world to world. Qualifications refer to what it is about us that is relevant to a particular world. They express our worth with reference to our contribution to that world’s common good. In my terms, claims of unfairness are always made with reference to aims/purposes and an individual’s relationship to them. The point becomes clearer when we examine the worlds identified by Boltanski and Thevenot .

These are the: domestic, industrial, fame, market, civic and inspired. We move through these worlds as we navigate through the world. You settle a dispute over domestic arrangements over breakfast (domestic).When you arrive at work you are immediately engaged in monitoring and adjusting routines, keeping affairs on track to achieve their outcomes with maximum efficiency (industrial) . Two meetings draw you away from this concern. The first, hastily summoned with the firms PR consultants discusses how the firm’s reputation can be defended from attack (fame); the second is a regular survey of the competition and the prices they offer (market). A meeting of your trade union branch takes care of your lunch-time (civic). In the evening you bring your latest poem to a meeting of your writers group, or attend your Parish council (inspiration).

Boltanski and Thevenot explore the characteristics of these worlds in a pincer movement; one arm of which is political philosophy, the other management handbooks. Each world is a particular way of establishing human bonds. Political philosophers are specialists in these bonds that draw individuals together in a polity. It makes good sense therefore to turn to the tradition of political philosophy for assistance in delineating the worlds. Briefly, Bossuet instructs them in the character of the domestic world in which individuals are drawn together in a hierarchy, each position having clear rights and duties to those above and below it. Saint-Simon instructs them in the characteristics of the industrial world where divisions of labour are elaborated to achieve maximum efficiency in the delivering their outputs. Hobbes describes the world of fame where honour is the aim and the winning of the good opinion of others the purpose. Adam Smith explains the moral basis of the market economy. Rousseau is their guide to the civic world where citizens are directed to find their particular interest in the general interest. St Augustine’s distinction between the ‘City of Men’ and the ‘City of God’ helps us understand the world we inhabit when we are inspired to step outside the everyday and envisage another condition of existence towards which we direct our steps. Now, I think that it is obvious that few individuals (even in France) conceptualise the common goods of the worlds they inhabit that underpin their claims for justice with the help of these philosophers. They are not (alas) widely read. As a visit to any airport book shop shows, management handbooks are widely read. Boltanksi and Thevenot make their case in a detailed analysis of six handbooks, one for each world. Thanks to the philosophers, we understand the contribution each world makes. Thanks to management handbooks that sell in such large quantities we have evidence of these worlds enduring co-existence.

The relationships between the worlds

In the example the manager moved from world to world as though from room to room. While the worlds were a necessary part of his work, they did not come together in the same room. The manager and his colleagues did not have to reconcile conflicts among them. Obviously, this is not always the case. Sometimes the worlds do impinge on each other competing for attention and imposing conflicting demands. Senior civil servants know this only too well. It is their situation.

As we saw in Part 1, the senior civil servant’s basic world is domestic. As a member of our mixed regimes aristocratic element he finds his place in a hierarchy designed to give the democratic element pre-eminence in the specialist business of policy-making and implementation. The minister moves from world to world. While the civil servant does not accompany him, he cannot be indifferent to these worlds and the justifications that they demand of the minister. For when the Minister returns to his domestic world, his position entitles him to call the civil servant to account for the assistance, or lack of it, the civil servant provided for his encounters in these worlds.

Since there are no studies of the senior civil servants and their interactions with ministers, I have to have recourse to fiction. Think of the following as an ‘hypothesis’. If you have any data to confirm, refute or correct it, please supply it.

Consider a Secretary-general’s agenda for a day. The first item is a dispute that blew up out of nowhere yesterday afternoon. A Principal Officer (PO) had submitted an answer to a Parliamentary Question to the Minister’s office. Seemingly a matter of routine – it relayed data supplied by a state agency – it had passed up the hierarchy without comment. However, the Minister’s media advisor was appalled; the figures in Table 3 could be spun to damage the Minister’s reputation. Why score an own goal? He rang the PO demanding that the figures be changed. The PO, to the delight and perhaps surprise of his staff who had prepared the answer, stood his ground. Of course, the wording could be changed, the presentation altered, but the facts must remain as reported by the agency. The S-Gs diplomatic skills were now required to settle the territorial dispute. What he could not do was declare that the Minister’s tribulations in the world of fame were of no concern to him or his department.

Enthused and informed by the MSc course in management that he had completed while an assistant secretary, the S-G had set a project team to work reviewing the department’s organizational structure. They were to present their first draft. He relished the prospect of meeting with them and immersing himself in the industrial world, the world of Mintzberg. Someday that world might get the space the modernisation programme promised. He is summoned abruptly from the meeting. The minister needs to see him urgently. She is meeting a delegation from her constituency. They asked some questions that she could not answer and he could. Anyhow his presence would make the photograph of the occasion all the more impressive when it appeared in the local paper and adorned the walls of the delegation.

The department is responsible for a range of infrastructural services. Once these had belonged to the state’s industrial world. The department’s job had been to oversee the State-sponsored bodies that delivered them. Now some of them had been privatised and the intention is to nudge others closer to the competition of the market world. The state’s retains a strong interest in the privatised services which are of economic importance. The S-G must enter the world of market to work out how that interest might be protected and advanced. He reviews a memorandum prepared for the Minister. The matter is technical, with a significant international dimension, a strong impact on the local economy, and major budgetary consequences. He checks that the advice is both coherent and comprehensible. Have all the angles been covered? Are there any hidden traps? The department has gone along way done the road with their international colleagues; does the memo reduce the risk that they may have to backtrack? Does it take sufficient account of the minister’s political agenda and its difficulties? He proceeds to brief the Minister.

The privatisation of the remaining services poses a different sort of problem. While they might be scornful of the industrial world’s services, neither politicians nor the public are convinced of the overwhelming merits of the market world. Consequently the matter cannot be settled by fiat. A working party comprising the main interests involved in a particular service has been convened. Progress has been painfully slow. The S-G returns to his office to discuss with the assistant-secretary and his colleagues who are responsible for the group, what, if anything, can be done to coax the interests to view their interests in the context of the interests of all, to move, that is, the discussion into the civic world. The minister is unlikely to help. Though the matter maybe in the programme for government, it has been crowded out of her agenda by more urgent matters. Her only concern is that one or other of the interest groups might break free, and go public, supplying the opposition with stones to throw at her.

A bright young AO, new to the civil service, brought along by his AP, has the temerity to suggest that maybe the Dail committee that monitors the department’s business could help. After all, its aim is the public interest. In what other arena could the civic world assert itself? The startled look on his superior’s faces tells him he has had made a big mistake. The S-G cuts short, the assistant-secretary’s long anecdote about what happened when they last appeared before the committee. Its members had focussed on accusations of particular failings. They had resisted every effort to place the complaints in the context of policy where they could be answered or resolved. The committee was just not interested in the general interest and how it was frustrated by particular interests. After all, they were indebted to the latter for their headline making accusations.

At last, the S-G has time to catch up with today’s Irish Times. He turns to the opinion page where a respected management consultant tells him, and the world at large, that he and his colleagues are failing the nation. Thanks to their lack of leadership, institutional inertia has practically halted the progress of reform. Time is running out, matters are urgent. They must set clearly defined targets for their managers and hold them to account for reaching them. Fundamentally, it is a question of values. Civil services must recommit to the traditional values of public service.

As he reflects on his day so far…


As long as we remain within one world, accountability with its apparatus of goals, targets, and performance measures, may be difficult, but it is possible. But how is it possible when more than one world must be taken into account? The justifications of one world cannot be transported into another. The problem is to find a compromise among them. We can think of each world as having a representative at the table where the compromise is worked out. The representatives can be judged both for his performance within his particular world and the skill with which he pressed its case in negotiations. A PR consultant, for example, inhabits the world of fame. Her success depends not only on her understanding of the dynamics of that world but on her ability to make them accessible to those in other worlds. So we must ask what world does the senior civil servant represent? As we have seen he inhabits the ‘domestic world’. Of course, he can in no way claim to represent that world. That is the Minister’s prerogative. Within that world he has special responsibilities for the industrial world in which the department’s business gets done. This responsibility was spelt out in the Public Sector Management Act (1997). However, as the evaluations of the modernization programme report, that Act’s ambitions to introduce ‘Strategic Management’ have largely failed. This should not surprise us. The outcomes of a compromise depend upon the authority/power of the parties. The civil servant’s position in the ‘domestic’ world does not give him the authority to push the interests of the industrial world to any great effect.

Indeed, it is I suggest a mistake to see the civil servant as a representative. He is better seen as messenger, bringing news of the concerns of one world to the attention of another. Or better, he is a diplomat who works for his minister in endless negotiations that find compromise after compromise. Now how to you hold a diplomat to account? What targets do you set him? Can he be blamed for a breakdown of peace? Or rewarded for sustaining it? How can his responsibilities be spelt out in any but the most general terms?


It easy to understand why Minister Rabbitte believes that something is amiss with the political/administrative interface. However this analysis suggests that the problem is not located in the minister-civil servant relationship. It lies in the balance of power among the worlds with which the civil servan -diplomat must engage. There are two aspects to the problem. As the inevitable compromises are worked out, the voice of the world of fame is too strong, that of the civic world too weak. The world of inspiration is almost silent. Furthermore, we cannot find a better balance, or even recognise that this is the problem, because the concepts that dominate research and control discussion come from the industrial or market worlds. We need to adapt our institutions to find a better balance. We need a different way of thinking about politics to find out how to do this.

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