Making it personal: civil service and morality

By Emma Martinho-Truswell

There are moments as a teacher or a facilitator when the mood in the room changes very suddenly. Sometimes this is the beginning of a disaster: misreading the room, choosing an example with an awful hidden meaning, or simply losing trust. But at other times, it is when someone shows something of themselves – something real – and the whole room turns towards them. These are some of my favourite moments. Earlier this month, training a group of talented civil servants in Ukraine, the room turned towards a participant who talked about God.

God seems an unlikely reference in a three-day workshop about open data implementation. But when I asked the group to talk about their inspirations, we moved away from technocratic discussions for a little while and started talking about deeper drivers. Some of the inspirations cited are religious: codes for living which are applied to work as well, or traits admired in religious leaders that officials wanted to bring to their own leadership. Other inspirations are more secular, but no less personal. Officials spoke about their parents, a boss who believed in them, or the most distantly admired Elon Musk, Winston Churchill or Lee Kuan Yew.

This kind of conversation feels quite different for civil servants, who are often trained to think analytically. Perhaps this is why there is such an intensity in the room when people start talking really honestly about why they do what they do. These deeper questions are important for officials, as institutional actors and as people.

Civil servants are actors of government, and citizens have moral expectations of their governments. An incompetent government is frustrating; an unjust government is terrible. Each government has a complex set of structures, conventions and rules that direct its actions. But the consciences of a government’s officials are among its most powerful forces of moral direction.

The personal dimension matters too. For over three years now, I have been advising civil servants implementing digital transformations in governments. Those civil servants are doing a difficult job that requires patience and drive; creative approaches and analytical rigour; opportunism and grit. Like anyone leading change, digital transformation can be a lonely job too – discussed thoughtfully by Richard Pope here – with suspicious peers and a skeptical public. In Ukraine, a low public opinion of government makes this even harder.

When a job is hard, it helps to know why you are doing it. One of the reasons I have loved working in, and for, governments, is that I really care about governments working well. It helps on days I have felt frustrated, tired or undervalued. When the big machine matters and because I feel that it matters, it is easier to be a cog in it (and to be a diligent, caring cog). This emotional connection, a belief in the importance of government, is a moral driver for me, and is more resilient than an analysis that proves government is important.

Giving leaders in government the support they need means helping them think morally as well as analytically. We all need to be reminded sometimes why we do what we do, why it is important, and why we should keep going. I think back to Lord Gus O’Donnell telling a group of Australian public servants that this kind of moral motivation is so much easier for governments than it is in the private sector, and we should use it more.

When global trust in government is low, and even the legitimacy of governments can feel under threat, we should be helping civil servants to build and protect their moral conviction about why they work for government. It strengthens them against their own frustrations, and it strengthens the moral force of governments. This is why Oxford Insights brings its focus to leadership, not just technology. As one official commented at the end of our workshops in Ukraine: “I am not just implementing a programme. I am changing my department.”