I recently watched the remake of Robocop. It was not a very good film, but it did remind me of the plight of the civil servants in Whitehall and the challenge of how and when to use your conscience.
Hannah Arendt defined bureaucracy as Rule by No One. It is the office that is accountable, not an individual, and that really means no one is responsible. Who, for instance, was responsible for making up fake stories that give the impression that sanctions for people on benefits are fair and reasonable? No one. It was just another bureaucratic task required of a civil service that must carry out the ‘will of the people’ who, in this instance, have been ‘realised’ in the form of Iain Duncan Smith.
Back in 1988, as a young man, having left University with little idea of what I wanted to do, I applied to be a ‘fast-track’ civil servant. I got through the exams, but then went to Whitehall for an intense couple of days trial by interview and workshop. One of the interviews was with a psychologist who asked me what I would do if I was asked to do something that I thought was wrong. My simplistic response was that I wouldn’t do it; but the psychologist argued that this would not work in the civil service, for you would have to work with politicians of every colour and they were accountable to the democratic process. It was not for me to insert my sense of right or wrong, like a spanner, into the workings of Government. The psychologist also went on to suggest that guilt was a bad thing and that perhaps I took it too seriously (a proposal I didn’t accept). I was then offered a job as a Tax Inspector (which I turned down).
While I can understand the logic of this argument for a neutral civil service it was clear to me that this was not my cup of tea. Moreover, I do wonder whether we really need a civil service.
This came back to me watching Robocop. For those of you not familiar with this science-fiction classic, a policeman, who suffers severe trauma is encased in a robotic suit – hence Robocop. But most importantly, to increase his effectiveness as a policeman, his conscience is ‘turned down’ by a combination of drugs and computer over-rides so that he cannot really be in control of his actions. Of course, it turns out that he is working for a corrupt system and he has become a tool of injustice. The story hinges on his ability to break free and assert his own will and conscience.
I know most civil servants are good people in a difficult situation. They are being asked to do bad things by a legitimate Government that has been elected by 24.4% of the electorate. They are well paid (civil servants have the highest median salary of any group – public or private) and they live in the wealthiest part of the country. They are surrounded by the powerful, the famous and the persuasive. It is hard to imagine circumstances more liable to put conscience to sleep.
Yet, stirring inside them, many must be this question: Did I really enter Whitehall to impoverish the poor and bully the weak?
And those of us outside Whitehall must be asking a further question: Do we really need civil servants if they can do things like this?
The model of the neutral civil servant, the tool of Government, seems so reasonable. But do we really want politicians to be given this kind of power over us? Could we take back this power and make decisions ourselves – in our lives and in our communities? How might we limit or discipline the spread of this kind of unaccountable power?
The ancient Athenians actually filled many public office by lot – subject to some vetting – like jury service: “It’s your turn to head up the collection of customs.” The main thing, as Aristotle observed, was to make sure that nobody had any personal interest in the decisions and so no temptation to cheat. And as they were only in post for a short while, and could be held accountable by the public – their fellow citizens – this system worked well for several hundred years. Perhaps we should try it too.