I am a pompous faceless bureaucrat, devoid of anything even faintly resembling a sense of humour. I spend my days correcting the drafting of my junior colleagues, usually by annotating the margins with Latin tags, using a carefully selected shade of violet ink in my fountain pen. By such means, I steadfastly pursue my goal, which is to resist and obstruct change in all its forms, with a particular emphasis on ensuring that ministerial initiatives receive every possible expression of support with the very minimum of practical consequences. I work from ten to four, sometimes with as little as an hour for lunch, then I return home and place my bowler hat on its special shelf, reflecting as a I do so on another successful day as a very civil servant.
Caricatures can be fun and can have some positive power, even when (or perhaps especially when) it can be painful to be on the receiving end of them. For many people it is undoubtedly true that playing word associations with ‘bowler hat’ will get very quickly to ‘civil servant’. That doesn’t trouble me. What does trouble me is playing the game the other way, starting with ‘civil servant’ and getting to ‘bowler hat’. The civil servant who conjures up the image of a bowler hat is the civil servant who conjures up the set of characteristics captured in the previous paragraph. That doesn’t matter for the purpose of writing sitcoms. It matters a lot for the purpose of how government works and how it might work better. If we don’t understand or don’t care how it works now, we stand no chance of making it work better in the future.
Today the government has published a civil service reform plan. It’s a serious issue with serious implications, both for civil servants themselves and, more importantly, for government and society. The strength of the stereotype and its inaccuracy are acknowledged in the opening paragraphs of Francis Maude’s ministerial introduction:
Some months back I visited a large HMRC operation near Newcastle. The work staff were doing there was neither highly paid nor glamorous, but nonetheless was really important. They had committed to driving up their productivity and performance through the adoption of lean continuous improvement. This is a very demanding methodology, and requires the complete commitment of staff to a rigorous daily collective self-evaluation and to constantly searching for ways to do things better and quicker.
These civil servants were succeeding. Day by day they were improving productivity and performance not because managers had ordained it but because their own commitment to public service motivated them to want to do things better. In this activity, well away from the public gaze, and a million miles from the ‘Yes Minister’ image, these civil servants were proud of what they were achieving, engaged and committed and determined to do it better and better.
In the way of the modern civil service, first wind that all this was coming out today came to me through twitter:
And of course there was a hashtag – #bowlerhats. And that gave me pause.
I don’t think ‘bowler hats’ is a neutral term in this context, nor one which is used to indicate either affection or support. In this context, it is essentially pejorative (even without any such intention by those using it). And at the risk of stating the staggeringly obvious, civil servants not only don’t wear bowler hats, but they haven’t done for more than a generation, so it’s plain wrong as well. In other contexts, labelling groups by what purports to be an identifying characteristic is recognised as offensive. That may be too strong a word to use here – I am not suggesting for a moment that ‘bowler hats’ is more than a mild insult, or that a civil servant should have a fit of the vapours about being referred to in that way. But I do think it is better to challenge stereotypes than to reinforce them. And I am disappointed that two official government twitter accounts – @UKCivilService as well as @GovUK – have chosen to use it.
There is a risk, of course, that the very act of writing this post demonstrates that I am indeed a humourless bureaucrat, personifying the very stereotype I am criticising, particularly since I made quite a similar argument not long ago about the misleading imagery of ‘Whitehall’. I prefer to think that it demonstrates fearless iconoclasm and a willingness to speak truth to power which exemplifies the very best of the modern civil service.
As ever, comments are welcome. The use of violet ink in the margins is optional.
Update 19 June 22:00
Encouraging responses from Emer Coleman – and a good reminder from Lesley Thomson of why this matters: