Does anyone still talk about the public service ethos?


Photo Credit: michael+yan via Compfight cc

As part of the Twenty First Century Public Servant project, I’m doing a literature review on the public service ethos. What I found fascinating is that publications about the public service ethos have all but dried up. The US literature on public service motivation – mainly quantitative – is flourishing and covers similar terrain, but people in the UK don’t write about ethos much any more. There was a flurry of writings in the New Labour era, indeed the Public Administration Select Committee wrote a whole report on it in 2002, but all has now gone rather quiet.

A few initial thoughts on why it’s not a big topic in their public administration literature anymore:

1. The internationalisation of academic writing, which incentivises academics to use dominant US terminology, research methods and comparative country studies.

2. The acceleration of outsourcing, such that the notion of a public service ethos seems more fragile and anachronistic than it did 10 years.

3. A tendency to talk about values and identity rather than ethos, which cover similar ground, but may be more individualistic and apolitical than the concept of ethos.

The Serco in-house magazine is (was?) called Ethos. Perhaps that’s also part of why it’s lost the sense of being a meaningful concept for those who believe in publicness.

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