Public service ethos: Concentrate on values and behaviour will follow

lawrence-pietroniIn our series of themed blogs on the public service ethos, Chris Lawrence-Pietroni makes the case for focusing on values


The notion of a ‘public service ethos’ is being challenged as never before. Not only is it under assault from the familiar if austerity-heightened claims of the market, it is also suffering in the face of an increasing awareness of the many ways in which public services and public servants have fallen far short of the ‘ethos’ they espouse.

The fiction of a distinct ‘public service ethos’, so the argument runs, is being revealed for the self-serving arrogance that it has always been. Worse than arrogance, it is a mask that has hidden injustice on a scale from the daily indifference to the needs of the individual to the horrors of Mid-Staffs. The notion of a ‘public service ethos’ is a dangerous fiction that serves only to make the public servants who believe it blind to their own shortcomings and those of the organisations in which they work.

How is it possible to defend the ‘public service ethos’ under such circumstances?

For those of us who believe that a distinct public service ethos is vital for the wellbeing of our country and our citizens, our first response must be to eschew any kind of defence in the face of the legitimate criticisms small and large that public services are facing. We must recall that a public service ethos – if it is worth anything at all – is focused first on the needs of the public and not the public institutions or those employed in them. We must accept that deep in the heart of the post-1945 settlement was an essentially patriarchal, hierarchical and provider-led set of assumptions, albeit in the interest of equity and social justice.

If we are honest we know that these continue to create a culture in which citizens are expected to accept the ‘public service’ which the provider thinks best or most efficient. If we stop for a moment we can come up with innumerable examples: access to our GP; 15 minute ‘packages of care’; the hospital Consultant who talks over the head of the patient in the bed; the local authority planning department inaccessible to local residents.

Our second response should be to articulate what a public service ethos could and should be, why it matters that we have one and how we need to hold our 21st Century public servants much more rigorously accountable to it. And to do that we have to make a case for the values that underpin the ethos.

Values are somewhat out of fashion. What matters, we are told, are not values but behaviours (indeed there was an earlier 21st Century Public Servant blog post arguing exactly that). “I don’t care what values my staff hold, so long as they behave as I expect,” seems at first a reasonable position. Until, that is, we remember that it is our values that determine our behaviours. The American philosopher Martha Nussbaum shows how the choices we make are “judgments of value”; to choose one action over another I must understand that it is in some way of greater worth. This is not something I know in the abstract but something that I feel through emotion. When my values are challenged I feel something – anger, sadness, despair, compassion. This is the emotional information I need to make a decision to act. If I act in accordance with my values the emotional dissonance is resolved. If I fail to act the dissonance continues.

Alongside the horror stories, we can also bring to mind experiences of public services where values have driven action and the result has been excellence, humanity and dignity. But often the front line of our public services are staffed by good people living in an almost permanent state of emotional dissonance created by the clash between what they feel to be right and how their performance metrics require them to act. And we can see the result in levels of sickness, absences and, ultimately, behaviour.

What we need are not only new ways of enabling public servants to feel more emotional dissonance prompting action in keeping with values, but public service environments that are designed to respond positively to the resulting challenges. How is this to be achieved?

We could do worse than to observe the golden rule articulated in some way by every religious tradition and embraced by secular humanists: “treat others as you would have them treat you.” To which we might add – as suggested by Karen Armstrong the great exponent of compassion as an organizing principle in public life – “do not treat others as you would not have them treat you.”

This is not a glib suggestion. What if we really organized our hospitals or schools or social care on this basis? What if the golden rule was our performance measure? What if we created expectations of rigorous mutual accountability to it? What if we integrated emotional as well numerical information into our decision-making? Then we might have not only a public service ethos fit for the 21st Century but one that enables public servants to act in accordance with their values.

Chris Lawrence-Pietroni is Co-Director of Leading Communities and a Senior Associate at INLOGOV.

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