civil service

civil service
   The origin of the civil service goes back to Napoleon in practice, and to the works of Max Weber in principle. In Weber’s ideal type, the civil service should be a rational model of decision making in which information flows up to the relevant level and decisions flow down. As not every decision can be made on a rational-legal basis, a political head would then make some decisions. In principle, the civil service is a politically neutral body of people who, in true Weberian fashion, are politically neutral and committed to dealing with and implementing the instructions of the government of the day. Each country deals with this in a different way. In British culture, the service is hierarchically divided into a number of classes ranging from clerical to executive and administrative. Entry to each grade is by competition and while, in theory, it is possible to move upwards from one grade to another, in practice this is difficult. On the whole, recruitment tends to be directly into a particular class and, like British life in general, movement from one class to another is infrequent.
   The most significant part of the civil service is the administrative grade. Entry to that grade is highly competitive and tends to be self-replicating in that the features already deemed successful from current post-holders are the characteristics sought in selection competitions. This makes the structure somewhat conservative. The conservatism is increased by a strong tendency to restrict entry to the administrative grade to candidates from Oxbridge. The end result is a high degree of ossification that reflects the still ossified class system of British culture and society.
   The civil service is largely centred on London, but some deliberate movement out of London has taken place. Notable examples are taxation bodies and driver’s licensing bodies. There have been numerous initiatives aimed at reducing the number of civil servants. These are almost always successful only by virtue of structural reorganization. Most significant in this and other respects, perhaps, has been the extraordinary growth of ‘quangos’ (quasiautonomous governmental bodies) such as the Highways Authorities. These bodies, now numbering some 5,000, are responsible for a considerable amount of public expenditure and are largely unaccountable. Many of these are staffed by civil servants who are no longer bound by relations of trust. This generates a huge industry of checking on the activities of what would otherwise be perfectly trustworthy public servants. It is hard to overestimate the damage done by the reduction of the culture of trust, and the incoming Labour government has, not surprisingly, politicized some areas of public service by making political rather than career appointments to crucial areas of policy and policy development. This politicization of the civil service may prove to be of the greatest moment in that it breaks both with Napoleonic and Weberian principles in favour of a presidential style of leadership that has, hitherto, been practised in Britain.
   See also: Establishment, the
   Further reading
    Dowding, K. (1995) The Civil Service, London: Routledge.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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