The ethics of the 21st Century public servant

Illustration by Laura Brodrick
Illustration by Laura Brodrick

Theme #2: The 21st Century Public Servant combines an ethos of publicness with an understanding of commerciality

The second theme from our 21st Century public servant project (following on from last week’s theme about coping with perma-austerity) is about the ethics of public service.

The public service ethos has been a common reference point in discussions about public service reform for many years. Ethos captures the sense of an intrinsic motivation to service the public, distinct from extrinsic motivations such as material reward or fear of sanctions. Intrinsic motivations are particularly important in public services since users often cannot impose extrinsic sanctions like exit on poor quality providers.

The interview findings for our project support the literature review summary which highlighted that a public sector ethos has been eclipsed by a public service ethos, which reflects the variety of different public service providers and the value of a shared commitment to service. As well as a commitment to publicness, the need for greater commercial awareness and skills was a recurrent and consistent theme throughout the interviews.

‘Local government will need more private sector skills, more crossover of skills and people. If staff in local government don’t have the commercial skills they won’t be employable. We have to help them get them.’


‘Chief officers will probably need a whole new set of skills. How do you do business relationships – how do you take elected members with you?’


‘There’s no good having an altruistic approach to managing a contract.’

‘We need commercial acumen. That’s not been favoured in social care in the past. But it’s not about profit, it is about what things costs, are we making the best use of public money. And can the third sector or private sector sometimes do things better, better value for money.’

Most of the interviewees did not see a tension between a commitment to publicness and a stronger set of commercial skills within the public sector. The private sector interviewees affirmed the relevance of the public service ethos to their own work, rejecting the notion that profit motive is a barrier to such an ethos: ‘I strongly believe that my public service ethos is as strong as, if not stronger than, many people who work in the public sector. I make more of an impact on the public that I serve now than I did when I was a chief officer in local government,’ as one said.

Some interviewees were wary of investing too much in the concept of ethos, pointing out that that behaviours are more important than values:

‘As long as when they’re at work they make the public member feel valued, the fact that they might not give two hoots for public sector and think everything should be privatised, I don’t think that really matters…It’s the behaviours that affect quality of service that users will receive that matters more than someone’s personal motivations.’

For some interviewees the concept of social value was an uptodate alternative to the public service ethos. The Social Value Act 2012 places a duty on public bodies to consider social value ahead of the procurement of goods and services. The extent to which the Social Value Act will change procurement and commissioning practices is as yet uncertain, particularly given the context of austerity within which many public service commissioning bodies are operating.Tensions between commerciality, value for money and ‘the social’ or public interest will be exposed as the Social Value Act is implemented.

Our guest blogers over the next couple of weeks will be reflecting more on some of these issues about ethos.


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