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How to Be a Civil Servant by Martin Stanley

3 February 2008

Gerald Kaufman’s How to Be a Minister was a sly, satirical look at what happens to politicians who find themselves a few inches nearer to the top of the greasy pole. But for their counterparts in administration, the mandarins of Whitehall, the equivalent guidebook was a little longer in coming.

How to Be a Civil Servant by Martin Stanley

Martin Stanley is a former senior official in the Cabinet Office who then went on to head the Postal Services Commission. His book, How to Be a Civil Servant, is written primarily for an incoming civil servant who will be working in Whitehall — most of the information relates to how to deal with ministers and junior ministers, Parliament, and the EU. Far from being written in impenetrable bureaucratese, the text is clear and straightforward, very well-organised. And it is far from dull, as a few examples will illustrate:

…it is perfectly proper for our drafts to omit facts and arguments which might cast doubt on the appropriateness of [policies]. In doing this, we are not being unprofessional. Rather, like the barrister whose principal duty is to the court and who does not necessarily believe in the client’s case, we are simply providing the best possible professional service to our clients, without going so far as to mislead the Minister or Parliament. (11)

And on more specific subjects, such as individual jobs:

[Personal Private Secretaries] are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and know where all the bodies are buried. For this reason, they are usually promoted when they leave Private Office…. (21)

And yes, it does mention Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes, Minister fame, but only as a convenient shorthand reference when referring to the Cabinet Secretariat.

How to Be a Civil Servant is a delightfully witty but remarkably practical book for anyone who happens to be entering into a fast-track, high-flying Civil Service job. For that matter, the chapters about Parliamentary Questions and how to respond to them would be most enlightening for newly elected Members of Parliament, let alone a civil servant. The book is tongue-in-cheek without being overly sarcastic, which makes it more of an actual ‘how to’ book than Kaufman’s satirical study. And for those who’ve any interest in looking at Whitehall from a rather less cynical and scheming viewpoint, How to Be a Civil Servant is probably the most helpful text that’s out there.

In addition to the book, the author has created a companion Web site at http://www.civilservant.org.uk. The Web site is well worth exploring in its own right, not least because it has any number of files and pages that are worth looking at…in my opinion, this one in particular.

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