Thursday, 22 December 2011

On Being A Public Servant - Part 1

La Mujer Libre writes an interesting Blog.  She has recently been posting on incidents from her time on a Prison Visiting Committee and mentioned Ken Murray.  

I commented that, having been part of The System, I have an enormous respect for those such as Ken Murray who have the courage to buck it when they have the conviction and ability and that one of the reasons that I retired at 50 was that government service had changed so dramatically that I no longer felt in tune with it.  I was one of the fortunate ones.   Having spent a couple of years working on one of the biggest public planning inquiries Scotland had seen (after Dounreay) I decided that I wanted to take early retirement after the Inquiry finished.   The Council was happy to get rid of expensive senior staff and so, soon after it finished, my application was granted and I retired on my full pension.

I was fortunate because my wife and I had a business which I could go into - a manufacturing pottery.  But more than that I wanted to leave a service that bore no relation to the service I had joined all those years previously. 

I joined Liverpool Corporation as a 16 year old junior clerk in the same job and sitting in the same chair at the same desk that Stanley Holmes (subsequently Sir Stanley and Chief Executive of Merseyside) had sat in when he started his career.

On my first day I was shown into the room of the then Principal Administrative Officer of the Town Clerk’s Department in which I was to forge my career.  (The Town Clerk's Department was the legal department and serviced the political machine ie the elected council.)  I can recall his words as if they had been uttered yesterday.  “You have joined The Town Clerk’s Department of Liverpool Corporation.  The Department will train you.  You will be sent to University.  You will receive promotions as befit your ability and application to the job.  You will have a job for life. In return you have to remember one thing and one thing only.  Your job is the same as the job of every one of the thirty thousand employees in the Corporation.   Your job is to serve the public.  Remember that above all else."  And he meant it.  Whatever else most people I worked with thought about their job most truly believed that they were serving the best interests of the public of Liverpool.

When I left local government many new appointments, particularly of senior staff, were being made on short term contracts.  For most staff there was no security of employment with cost cutting exercises taking place every year.  Services kept suffering as fewer people were there to do the jobs expected by the public.  Those that remained spent more and more time gathering statistics for government targets which were becoming harder and harder to achieve in the vicious circle.  The rest of the time they were ensuring that there was sufficient paperwork to protect themselves from the culture of blame and litigation sweeping in from the other side of the Atlantic. In short local government had ceased to be a place where all one had to remember was that one had to serve the public and get on with the job of doing that.  For many it had become a fight for survival.  It had become a place where one's first loyalty was to making sure that one could putting food into the mouths of one's family.

I believed that the public was worse off as a result.  It was not a place I wanted to be.


  1. This piece of writing contained a few personal details I did not know before! (like the fact that you retired at 50) As for local government employment etc I'd say the development has been similar in Sweden too. (I've worked for various public services as well as private businesses.)

  2. Ahhh Graham. It is a sad tale - idealism v cynicism...
    I went into law wanting to "be of service" - I knew that I could not join the big corporate practices that my peers longed to be part of - for me public service was a noble calling...
    It still is of course - and there are many many wonderful and dedicated people.
    I think that there has always been corruption and nepotism - "jobs for the boys" etc. But the denigration of public service as a calling destroys the quality of the service provided...
    I have enjoyed reading about your experience. And thanks for the mention>

  3. Hello,
    I have a question about your blog. Please email me!

  4. This post was very interesting and reflects the government run public sector offices accurately. In my country, the government offices are a joke and as you say, declined since the old days (sometime around 80s) although the funds alloted are ever increasing.

  5. Sir Stanley is my great great uncle. We have no information about hi though. Do you know when he died at all? If so could you email me back.

  6. Sir Stanley is my great great uncle. Do you know when he died because I'm making a family tree? If so could you email me back.

  7. James. I apologise for the fact that I have only just seen and moderated this comment. I cannot find an email address for you on Google+. I do not know when your great great uncle dies although I do know when his widow died (7 August 2003 in Llanelli). Much to my astonishment I can find no reference to his obituary.