Skip to main content
Civil Service

Serving the Government of the day   

John Manzoni
John Manzoni

We’re here to serve the government of the day - a phrase often heard, particularly at election time. It’s central to our role as civil servants. When a new government is elected, we stand impartial and ready to act.

The new Government has a new agenda, and it will want to move forward very quickly to implement its priorities. There has already been, and will continue to be, much discussion about exactly which actions to take first, how they fit into a legislative agenda, and what choices to make along the way. This will require significant focus and effort from us in the coming weeks and months. That means a significant part of our focus, especially in the formative stages of a new agenda is upwards to our new Ministers.

But most of the Civil Service is focused on the delivery of public services - paying benefits, collecting tax, managing prisons, or implementing what has gone before. We want to build a reputation in the Civil Service that we deliver what we say we will, on time and on budget. And for that, we have to look forwards and downwards, as well as upwards.

This is what makes the Civil Service such an interesting and challenging place to work. That balance of looking down and out, whilst being aware of, and providing advice to the political agenda, requires real skill as a leader. Our delivery teams need clarity and as much certainty as we can provide, to allow them to implement well. In this early phase of a new Government, we need to be especially aware of the potential for changing agendas or focus, and help our teams steer through this period by providing as much certainty and stability as possible.

And we have to be clear about how we will deliver whatever the new agenda requires.  That means we have to be well judged, and sometimes brave as we outline what resources are needed, or over what timeframe a new policy can be delivered. But that is how we build our reputation; we do what we say, we do it well, and to time. So it matters what we say.

In the next few weeks and months, as the new agenda is clarified and the direction set, we need to look upwards to help, but equally we need to look downwards for our teams.  We need to be clear and well judged, and sometimes brave as we advise on what it will take to deliver. Successful delivery is what makes reputations, and we are in a critical moment to set ourselves up for success.

Sharing and comments

Share this page


  1. Comment by David posted on


    A good point about who we are here to serve, my understanding is that we are here to serve the tax paying public who consume the services we provide and the public interest of those citizens. It should not be the ego of the Departments Director although it frequently is. Or the interests of a politician of the day who wants to hear they are right when frequently they are not and there is inconvenient evidence that needs to be ignored "in the public interest". Perhaps John can clarify if the Civil Service is supposed to be a political tool or a public service?

    It is perhaps a little unfortunate the turn of phase used of "looking down and out" which has connotations of tramps at the bottom of the organisation never mind that of simply looking "down on" at the grass roots activity that is our core business at the end of the day.

  2. Comment by Mike Smith posted on

    Quite right Matt but this is the Civil Service, pyramids don't get inverted around here. On the one hand we are told to challenge the status quo but on the other, anybody who dares to constructively suggest there is a better way of doing things than that devised by senior civil servants, or worse still expensive consultants, is soon branded as a disloyal trouble maker. Inventive from line staff soon learn to toe the line and keep their ideas to themselves. They devote their energy and good will instead to making ill-thought out policies and procedures work against the odds and for the benefit of the public.

    • Replies to Mike Smith>

      Comment by Alex posted on

      Mike, when I first joined the Civil Service I would have dismissed your view as cynical nonsense, but I'm afraid that experience means I have to agree. We seem to have an unbreakable culture that the "consultants know best", even as they recommend yet another outsourced IT system which arrives 2 years late, 3 times over budget and can only be used if frontline staff employ loads of time consuming workarounds.
      And when this (predictably) happens for the umpteeth time, senior managers act all surprised, trying to deny that a problem even exists. Once they do get round to "listening to the front line" who have been telling them about the problems for months, they then discover that the contract has been written in such a way that there is no comeback against the supplier, and millions more of public money goes up in smoke!

      May be it will change this time 🙂

  3. Comment by Matt posted on

    At supermarket chain Asda, senior managers make a point of saying "right up to the shop floor". This little linguistic hack acknowledges that their job is to serve customers and support frontline staff in delivering great service. Government ministers are here to serve the people, not the other way around. Teams on the public sector front line don't just "implement well", they're the source of the most inventive solutions. By all means manage upwards, but make sure you know which way is up!