19 April 2013

Is it “…a crass attempt at sucking up to MPs…”  if public servants write for the media about their experiences working with a particular Minister?  Does the subject matter make such articles inherently political and therefore beyond the scope of anyone who is subject to political neutrality obligations?  Does it depend on the extent to which the writer seems disinterested?  Is it an appropriate practice for the most senior officials?

In Britain this week both the Head of the Civil Service and the Cabinet Secretary have been in hot water for their parts in writing and endorsing a media article highlighting the good working relationships which Margaret Thatcher had with civil servants supporting her  – and by implication better relationships than other Prime Ministers have had with staff.  The article referred to her as “…the best kind of boss…” and with infuriating specificity, that she served home-made shepherd’s pie when they worked late.

Not only was the Prime Minister’s Office irritated by the comments.  At a meeting of the Public Administration Select Committee an Opposition MP demanded an apology from Sir Bob Kerslake and Sir Jeremy Heywood for being despicably sycophantic, “prostituting their high office” and  breaching their neutrality obligation.

So is it behaving disgracefully, as the MP alleged, if senior public servants write articles of this type  for the media? The two most senior civil servants don’t think so.  They deny the content is any more than a reflection of the views held by officials working with Baroness Thatcher.  The MP sees it as hagiography.

Would it be acceptable for a senior official to publish a deprecating article describing a Minister as inconsiderate and self centred?

Is either a matter of political expression or association?  That is what principles of political neutrality are about.

Or is it rather a case of behaviour with potential to harm the reputation of the civil service. But speaking appreciatively of the kindness of person with whom an official has worked cannot create a perception of harm.  And even conversely, a without malice comment about less desirable characteristics of such a person is unlikely to be any more harmful to an agency’s reputation. Officials are required to be truthful.

Perhaps the offending nature of the comment lies in disclosing information gained directly from government employment and known only because of that employment, ie  it is official information that a public servant would need authorisation from their chief executive to disclose?

In a Public Service department information held by the department can be considered to be the chief executive’s information, so no authorisation issue would have arisen regarding the Thatcher article.

May be it is a matter of modeling.  If it is acceptable for senior public servants to comment in the media about the characteristics of Ministers, others may infer that they may do likewise?  And that has potential to make it difficult for a department to work with current Ministers or with a future government of a different composition.