Speaking Truth Unto Power: Ethics and HR


The ethics debate often cites recent high profile failures in the banking, local government and the care sectors and asks what went wrong. Despite its enormous size, the Civil Service seems to have avoided these crises. So what went right?

I’m proud to be a product of the Civil Service. After joining as an Administrative Officer from University, I worked across a broad range of roles and was lucky enough to complete the Civil Service Fast Stream programme – still the gold standard for graduate schemes in the UK. I use the skills that my time in the Service gave me every day, but the lessons that will last forever are those about decision making and ethics. Although it was not laboured explicitly, the fundamental and guiding principle of ‘speaking truth unto power’ was well understood and passionately adhered to. When I worked in Whitehall I worked closely each day with Secretaries of State, junior ministers and, on the Civil Service side, with Permanent Secretaries and Directors General. I saw very many examples of Civil Servants saying ‘No, Minister’ when they felt that a decision or course of action was unethical, disingenuous or not in the best interests of the ‘company’ and ‘shareholders’ (in those cases the ‘country’ and the ‘people’).

Of course, there were many times when I saw Civil Servants implement decisions and even develop policies and proposals that they disagreed with personally. But those disagreements were political ones. Tory leaning Civil Servants would occasionally bristle at developing a strategy for Labour ministers, but they always seemed very clear in their own minds about the difference between legitimate differences in view and the difference between right and wrong.

In June this year, Richard Heaton, Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office, requested a ministerial direction over additional funding for Kids Company; you can read the direction request here. Directions are used rarely, but allow a Civil Servant to effectively say that if a Minister is going to take a decision that s/he believes is against the interests of, in this case, the public purse, that Minister needs to issue a written instruction to overrule the Civil Service. As you can imagine, ministers do not welcome these requests given the potential to end up in front of the Public Accounts Committee being asked why they ignored the advice of their officials. I have known one Permanent Secretary suggest to a Minister that he may require a Direction on an issue and, what followed, was a sensible, reasonable conversation which resulted in a much better outcome. The power of the Direction is most commonly in the threat of the Direction.

Directions are just an example though. Civil Servants will often challenge Ministers and each other when they are concerned about points of principle, the Civil Service code, or ethics. This is in part why we haven’t seen the type of governance and ethical failures that we have seen in other areas of the public sector and delivery organisations.

So, what’s the secret? What is it about the Civil Service that means Speaking Truth Unto Power becomes a real guiding principle rather than an aspiration?


  1. Ministers have no control over decisions affecting the careers of Civil Servants.

When being considered for another job or promotion, a Civil Servant need never sit across a formal interview table from a Minister. The actions and decisions they have taken need only be justified to other civil servants.


  1. The political neutrality of the Civil Service.

Being politically neutral, yet tasked with implementing the decisions of politicians from different parties, means that Civil Servants are used to approaching issues from different, often contradictory, perspectives. Being able to consider an issue from a number of angles avoids ‘group think’ and a culture in which everybody in a meeting is drawn to reaching consensus.


  1. Debate is valued.

Above all, debate is encouraged in the Civil Service and, rather than being accused of u-turns or not being resilient enough, changing one’s position in the face of a developing body of knowledge is widely respected.


  1. For many Civil Servants, their career is still thought of as a job for life.

This may be hugely unpopular in HR and business circles in 2015, but I think there is something valuable in one’s career being a ‘given’ that avoids decisions and approaches to difficult decisions being made in a shadow of fear about job security. We know that when people are under pressure they make different decisions – we need only look at examples from the care sector of what happens to ethical decision making when people are operating in a climate of fear. Whichever way we come at this we can’t dodge the fact that people who are not in fear of their continued employment will take a different approach to challenging and difficult decisions.

Perhaps the most important factor, when I think back to my time in the Service, was that for those of us fortunate enough to be close to senior decision making, our leaders didn’t just talk about ethical decision making, they demonstrated it. In truth, there were probably a handful of conversations that I had with people in which we talked explicitly about ‘truth unto power’ and challenging questionable decisions. The cultivation of this approach was in its practice and we ‘young’ Civil Servants did what all junior staff do: we watched our senior colleagues and copied them. Had they not been such strong role models all the training courses, values posters, and conferences in the World wouldn’t have changed a thing.









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