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Feature

Heath digs deep into the institution of the permanent civil service in The Machinery of Government

By Joseph Heath       

The following is an excerpt from Joseph Heath's Donner-nominated book, The Machinery of Government: Public Administration and the Liberal State. 

Joseph Heath is author of The Machinery of Government: Public Administration and the Liberal State, published by Oxford University Press. It's one of five books nominated for this year’s Donner Prize for the best public policy book of the year. 'The book deals with the question of how civil servants should think about the public good, and how it should inform their work.' Photograph courtesy of Oxford University Press/Donner Prize

The institution of the permanent civil service, I have suggested, generates significant benefits for the quality of public policy, delivery of public services, and ultimately, promotion of social welfare. It is also, one might add, an arrangement that seems objectively rather improbable. Clearly, the more natural impulse of politicians is to bring in partisans, or individuals of demonstrated loyalty, to fill major staff positions. Of course, back in the 18th century, when public offices were bought and sold, politicians had no choice but to accept the existence of permanent officials—evicting someone from office would have been akin to depriving him of his property. In the modern world, however, what makes permanence possible is the institution of civil service neutrality. I describe this as an “institution” because, while there are a few explicit rules and regulations that public servants must follow, the bulk of the commitment to neutrality takes the form of an unwritten code of conduct, a component of the system of professional ethics that governs administrative behaviour. And while this conduct has not been officially codified, it is of sufficient importance to the practice of Westminster-style government that many commentators have taken to describing it as a “constitutional convention.”

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