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Public Service: no way; on its way, or lost its way?

In life things go round in circles, don't they? We keep seeing the same things happen over again. This is a sequel to my blog the “Rise and Fall of Public Service”.  Please also see my website entry - the case for better public service everywhere also published here.

Although that blog is mainly about the UK, here I expand on the rise and demise of public service with reference to Cambodia and St Helena. Public service “capacity-building” is of course a favourite and most expensive part of Foreign Aid.

No Way

“No way” was often said to me of UK public services back in 1974. The attitude lives on today.

1974 was when I first entered UK public service. There were mixed views about it – downright hostility; grudging acceptance, and self-righteous pride. We had Royal Commissions to look in to them. Shuffling paper, as it was often portrayed, was deemed not as worthy in life as making things, as that, it was argued, is how wealth is created. Mind you John Maynard Keynes proved wealth could be created by digging holes!

Mr Jobsworth as described by Malcolm Philips was not only the butt of jokes, but someone we all knew.

Today in Cambodia, despite over 25 years of generously-gifted “capacity-building”, public service or the concept of serving the public is yet to catch on. Instead public office is the way to enrich and ingratiate oneself among the ruling elite. The general public serves the elite and pays for the privilege. On St Helena the general public has always served, legacies from slavery and colonial servitude.

On its Way

Perceptions of some if not all of the public sector have improved over the years. The distinctions between the “wealth-creating” private sector and “wealth-absorbing” public sector have blurred. Education in particular is now recognised as a direct wealth contributor. Public transport, good roads, are also accepted as vital to the economy. Even a public health service that keeps people well, restoring them to be fit and active back-to-work, finds itself in great public favour even cult status as in the current Covid19 pandemic.

So here there are similarities between UK, Cambodia and many other countries if not quite St Helena. Its small private sector depends on its larger public sector.

Lost its Way

I must confess being out of the UK for decades, largely confined to Cambodia, I've missed out on much of what has gone on. Public service has changed a lot – to save money in UK in the Austerity Age; to make money in Cambodia (not just from Foreign Aid but that's the easiest easy way to make money), and to carry on spending what is regarded as Foreign Aid money on St Helena, not just taxpayers' money the term used in every other British Island.

Above I mentioned Royal Commissions. One led to the 1974 UK local government reorganisation that to this day I call “disorganisation” and it always gets a laugh. Since then many disorganisations keep going on in UK, Cambodia, and even now on St Helena as I write.

In the UK, our once ubiquitous and proud public services have found chunks put out to contract, i.e. privatised to operate “better” i.e. at less cost, or for private profit or whatever imotive of whoever has taken over. Some businesses may well retain the best tradition of serving the public, others less so. The busy over-crowded County Halls of Malcolm Philips and my days are long gone. They must be as empty as Cambodia government offices tend to be although they do spring-to-life and are packed-to-the-brim on rare occasions when there is a public sector worker census. Some UK privatisations have failed as in the case of the probation service. Personally I fail to see how social care can be better carried out by private companies than properly-organised professionally-trained public service teams.

Technology has been a boon for those in favour of slimmed down public services. It may even be the key to an entirely new way-of-working. No longer will so many workers spend time and money commuting to work and occupying expensive heated or cooled offices when they can work at home. Technology provides new ways of doing things but are we in danger of losing our way in doing them? I berate Northumberland County Council for automating its decision-making, notification and enforcement processes. Basically it has set up things so once a decision is made, computer-generated actions take over. There isn't much serving the public in that operation.

Good Governance put simply

At this juncture I would like to remind you of the basics of Good Governance as I see them. You don't need expensive consultants and experts to understand them, although there are many Lords and Ladies of Poverty enriching themselves by making out that it is a sophisticated and complex discipline. (Please see a recent UNDP advert and rewards package pasted below.)  It isn't complex. You won't go wrong if you are guided by two things.

1.  Before you make a decision that affects people, consult them meaningfully. I like the United Nations mantra of “Free Prior and Informed Consent” for the world's indigenous people – sadly it is too rarely applied.

2.  Observe the principles of natural justice so your decision is the best one for the person affected; so that it stands up to scrutiny in any fair appeal process, and the one most likely be accepted without ill-feeling.

In Cambodia, despite all of our best efforts over 25 years including a [once] vibrant Civil Society and a lot of donor Foreign Aid, neither of these simple tenets has registered - in reality in practice as distinct from many spoken and written words otherwise. Tests I conducted proved that the concepts are well known not only during good governance training but also before it took place. Smiles on faces tell you. There is no good will to change with the current long-standing political leadership. If donors keep supporting reforms claiming otherwise, they're throwing good money after bad. It was time to give up when I overheard: “Take their money, go along with them, but once they're out-the-way, we do things our way”.

Who decides things?

One of the great mysteries in countries like Cambodia is you are never sure about who actually makes decisions. That person can be well-disguised, even more so as formal communications are rarely used. Telephone calls are preferred because there's no record. These methods are typical of administrations that do not practice good governance. Even on tiny St Helena where everybody knows each other the identities can be hidden behind the impersonal organisation with the intriguing title of “The Castle” .

Anonymity is key to evading accountability. Northumberland of late with its automated computer-generated letters printed and posted miles away from the originator, doesn't even bother to have names and signatures put on them.  They're deliberate “fait accompli” with no allowance for technical glitches. Once the "sent key" is pressed the letter is deemed to have been sent even if it never arrives in the post through your letter-box.

Now apart from it being simple good manners to say who has dealt with or is in charge of your case, it is also sound ethical practice. It's the only way to be sure that he or she is not involved in reviews of the decision contrary to the principles of natural justice and good governance.

Who by position?

Most public sector decisions conform to set policies and patterns in predictable circumstances. So there should be no problem ordinarily. Complacency however can easily set in giving rise to displeasure when people “extraordinarily” challenge decisions. Their right to do so, within good reason, should be respected, accommodated and administered properly in accordance with natural justice. I see that this aspect of good governance drummed in us in our formative days is either not learned today; forgotten or conveniently set aside even with bodies intended to uphold rights – like Ombudsmen.

Cambodia, like St Helena, doesn't have Ombudsmen. In Cambodia it's clear why – people are not supposed to challenge their superiors. Some lose their lives for doing so. I saw it too on St Helena. The scale of retribution for such impertinence and disloyalty may not be as dire as in Cambodia but in UK and St Helena it is not without some penalty.

The public sector in UK used to work on the basis that regular salaried professional staff carried out the daily work and made most decisions. Policy was supposed to be for elected officials* who would also take up representations of any constituents unhappy with decisions. Elected members would sit on appeal committees established to guarantee fair hearings. Not so today. Public service seems to have lost its way. On the one hand are elected officials, who are salaried and part of the executive while on the other hand we now have top officials like Chief Executives who haven't come up through the professional ranks. We're losing the concept of a neutral public service. It was once one of the UK's best exports around the world. Many top Civil Servants departing of late confirms its demise and uncertain future.

Cambodia in theory does have a professional public service but many positions are filled not on the basis of best person for the job but on loyalties, personal and/or party-political. Many positions are bought, especially those that have rent-seeking opportunities. Most annoyingly similar habits have drifted-in elsewhere (a Sea of Corruption"), at times concealed, even in international agencies and civil society organisations who advocate against nepotism, cronyism and conflicts of interests.

St Helena does of course have a peculiar problem due to its small size - geographically 47 square miles, under 5,000 population, as people know each other or about each other. Usually intimate knowledge is an asset, good for team-building, but of course if misused it can also be a liability. St Helena when it comes to organising services does of course suffer from diseconomies of small scale.


Good governance and different structures and processes of public service are perennially subject to examination from friend and foe, with debate much study as former UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson said of Royal Commissions, setting them up “takes minutes and wastes years”.

There is one thing that unites UK and places like Northumberland with places as diverse as Cambodia and St Helena, no matter what tinkering is proposed, unless there is a clear good will for the change on the part of leaders with the ability to cultivate widespread support in the population, it simply does not work. Yes, the issues will return again and again.

Northumberland was the subject of reorganisation creating a unitary authority in 2009, abolishing districts, despite the county's geographical size and a majority voting against the change. Today it is dysfunctional mired in controversy with a suspended Chief Executive and ousted Council Leader. Although one issue has given rise to the debacle, the origins can be traced to that “reorganisation” and the way the “new” Council operates impervious to well-meaning advice. For more on this, please see my blog.

Cambodia in some ways ought to be a successful model of international nation-building with brand new structures after the chaos of the Khmer Rouge and its aftermath. It had the largest-ever most expensive “intervention” under United Nations auspices. Yet despite all the planning and best expertise, things have never settled as intended. Indeed there's been much tinkering of the constitution, structures and methods of administration at national and local levels. Most have been for party-political purposes in defiance of donors who paid for reforms. One for example is the decentralisation of public services, a stated policy over 25 years, that has not seen one major function devolved locally. My blogs and website tell the stories.

St Helena by contrast is small in comparison, yet remarkably not only is it one of the most Foreign Aid grant-aided per head territories in the world, but it too has had more than its fair share of “experts” examining its governance. The latest [expensive] one has visited, left and added his paper to the vast library of expert reports about St Helena. I am grateful to Ken Westmoreland for reminding me of previous relevant missions not only in relation to St Helena but also to other relevant small island states. Some like Alison Quentin-Baker have been most distinguished; written authoritatively but even she came and went without leaving much of a mark.

For those interested I give my take below on the latest review and reforms – one that no-one else has expressed. This is not the first time I have done this – I gave salutary warnings about the UK DfID's plans for the island with the its new airport, hence my "I told you so" Twitter moment.


* The Royal Commission report and other studies point out the paradoxes in governance, for example one evident factor in both local and national government in the UK and indeed elsewhere: Officers actually want to be policy-makers and strategists, while elected officials are happier with mundane details, the converse of their intended roles. One Chief Executive I knew was happiest when Council Committees poured over wording like “three alternatives”, they usually amended it to “three options”, averting attention and time on what each alternative, or option, entailed. Main issues, the big picture went by default.

A recurring feature throughout all my Foreign Aid writings is how too much store is placed on external experts and so little on local people who in my view are always best-placed to decide on their own problems, priorities and solutions.  I first saw this while on St Helena in the 1980s.


Saint Helena Governance and Administration – 2020 – studies, options and plans.

Readers unfamiliar with St Helena may like to read my popular blog as an introduction.

St Helena is a tiny island of around 5,000 that has been administered - or at the mercy of - the UK Foreign Office and Department for International Development for decades. From September 2020 the two are merging supposedly in to a joint ministry the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office.

I first encountered island politics in 1983 and have observed it ever since. The over-riding issue is economic. St Helena is not self-sufficient. It can't pay its way. It depends on a hand-out from the UK government. It's been like that every year but one in the last century. Hundreds of initiatives have been tried and failed including the grandest most expensive venture, the new airport. Some of us predicted the plan would run in to problems, admittedly they came about sooner than we expected. Throughout my 37 years connected, and for decades before, debate has raged about to what extent the island's governance determines or plays a major factor in its demise.

Given the abject failure of the airport project it was inevitable that [great] minds would resurrect the debate. Needless to say, as with every other problem raised the same response follows with monotonous regularity. Terms of reference are drawn up, budgetary allocations found and the latest expert is flown-in – shipped-in until the new airport replaced the much-loved RMS St Helena ship.

Needless to say Saints, as the locals are called, apparently can't do anything in any area of public service without outside “help”. Professor Jeremy Sarkin is the latest of a long line to “go to their rescue.” The Island has to decide, going from how it is governed now to one of two options.  Cynics would say it's a choice between two evils, or three, if you include the current set-up. Let's start with there.

I warn you this is a simplification. Most policy and important decisions are made by an appointed Governor from the UK. Although he has the colonial legacy of dictatorial powers he (it was only she once) should decide most things on his own or as a token to democracy as “Governor-in-Council”. The Council meets with the top salaried St Helena Government Officers heading public services and the senior members of the elected Legislative Council. Those senior Councillors head the relevant committees intended to oversee public services. Just to explain and complicate the mix, Saints don't hold many of the salaried posts while some expatriates resident on the Island might also be elected Councillors. (A fair few officials imported from the UK have settled there over the years.) In reality budget decisions are made in the UK and the island must operate within what it's allowed to do. Unfortunately much of what happens is outside of its control, not only because of UK, but also as it depends on South Africa for vital services and supplies – a conscious decision and consequence of the UK-DfID business plan. Professor Sarkin is also from there.

The professor suggests the island chooses between two options: [1] An enhanced version of the present committee system, that is generally agreed not to have worked well so far, with the Governor still in charge. [2] A new “ministerial system” whereby elected officials would become ministers, and one would be a First Minister. To me it's not much of a choice – between the totally unknown and the known but discredited familiar. My guess is another consultant will be dispatched before long.

In my humble opinion they should go back to basics. How do you get the best from the people who are there or for whom it is home, without of course having to keep “building” or importing “capacity”? Who knows what best? The island's administrative structure is remarkably large and cumbersome for just 5,000 souls. Organisational logic would dictate dismantling parts of the system, making it simpler and cheaper, not more complicated as is recommended. In my previous paper I argued that a UK-appointed Governor can not know what is best for Saints and should not be imposed arbitrarily on the Island. I won't elaborate on that here. Instead Ill deal with the officers and elected Councillors.

If the St Helena Government, on its own or with the help of UK, employs competent professionals to head its public services, there is much sense in letting them get on with the job on-the-whole. That is particularly so for strategic and overall management, skills that few Saints have or could discharge dispassionately given local circumstances. One distinguished visitor not long ago voiced what has been common knowledge for years: “St Helena suffers from bad management and a lack of strategic management”.

Elected Councillors rarely have the technical knowledge to compete with the professionalism of these officers. They should, however be able question consequences of decisions and to represent where and how they impact on their constituents. To do that they must have access to independent means to do so. The current set-up and both Sarkin proposals maintain the two tier set of elected Councillors – the elite in-the-fold and the others out-of-it. This is probably the root cause of dissatisfaction. I suggest St Helena sticks to Councillors as elected officials, and officers as officers. Keep it simple.

Why not allow all Councillors to remain as elected officials and for each of them to be able to do that job better? They must have recourse to relevant professional knowledge where they have good reason to question decisions that they or their constituents are unhappy with. That's not hard to provide given modern communications. Most importantly if this colonial yoke is to go once and for all they must have the power to confirm appointing and terminating whoever is dispatched to the Island including those in charge of public services. This is their post-colonial right and responsibility. Abolishing the need for senior Ex-Co Councillors would actually allow the number of Councillors to be reduced to 6 or 8 ample for the island and 5,000 population.

This proposal would give Saints ultimate authority while still enabling the best people to carry out the various professional tasks, and without spending vast sums on continually “raising capacity”. The post of Governor is still a post-colonial anachronism. Few Foreign Office appointees have or ever will serve in a comparable senior management capacity of heading up a range of diverse public services or large organisation.

Suitable strategic leaders are found elsewhere in public service and in the private sector, and should be recruited, a point also made by Lord Ashcroft. That particular role is quite different from the role of representing Saints ad St Helena to the rest of the world.

St Helena ought to be represented externally by one of its own. It could be an elected Councillor, perhaps on a rotational basis, or a person they select. Whoever is their best choice needs have the support of a small secretariat that could also provide access to independent expertise for all Councillors to do their jobs – i.e. separate and independent from the main administration. If Councillors are seen to do their job and have recourse to their own support and credible surces of advice, you are more likely to find decisions in the end that are accepted so that people move on. If not, as I began this blog, the same things will crop up again and again. Nowhere does that happen more often than in relation to St Helena. We see the same issues keep cropping up again and again (like "Fisheries") as they're never resolved once and for all.

But I bet I will be tweeting "I told you so" again.

A St Helena Update July 2021

It seems that despite the very low affirmative vote for change on St Helena, the "ministerial system" in a place no larger than a small town, is being pushed through by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and by the St Helena Government.  As with so much about St Helena the people promoting the change will be long gone when its implications arise.  Absent voters - those who choose not to register to vote and who do not vote despite being registered - are a vital part of any democracy.  They tell us how healthy it is or is not.

Too late. Act in haste, repent at leisure?


November 2020

"Fairer Share" suggests a better fairer way to fund local public services.  See video.

October 2020

Fascinating article by Colin Talbot posing the question "Who killed the study of public administration in UK? I must confess I had not thought of this important aspect. I did of course study the subject as part of my Business Studies course and professional training though I opted for personnel management not public administration.  It helps to explain the demise of public services.


My first years in public service were spent in organisational reviews of major services such as Police and Education.  The aim is to design organisational structures to be as efficient as possible while providing fulfilling jobs for the people who work in them alongside best value-for-money for tax-payers. In recent years the National Audit Office has performed this function, assisting the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons in its deliberations.  One of these was the review of the St Helena Airport project.

Any decision about St Helena's governance must take in to account the role and costs of the existing system headed by the Foreign Office appointed (and imposed) Governor. I made a Freedom of Information Request for this on 19 July 2020. There is a delay in replying due to Covid19. However a firm recommendation about this post cannot be made without such information and the alternative uses to which the outlay for this post could be used.

I received a reply on 17 September. "The most recent information held is for costs recorded for 2018/19, which is £375k".  £31,250 a month is quite modest, although the sum will vary depending with who is appointed and their entitlements. If just over half of that is the personal salary then the Governor would be on a salary higher than the UK Prime Minister, as Prime Minister and MP - around £160,000 a year. 

UK's smallest local authority is the Isles of Scilly, population 2,259, it pays its Chief Executive the full-time equivalent rate of £104,050. The next smallest, Rutland, 39,927 pays its £127,153.

In the not-for profit sector, Save the Children Fund pays £190,000 for its Chief Executive. It has a US$  2.2 billion (£1.65b) turnover, 25,000 dedicated staff across 117 countries.


You acquire many pearls of wisdom over the years, as well as hopefully learning from experience. In my blog about days in Dorset I tell about one source of such wisdom mentioned above – the principles of natural justice. Here's another one:

■   Good people in good teams do good work even in bad organisations.

■   Even in the best organisations, poor people in poor teams do not work well.

■   Good people in good teams in good organisations always do the best work.

In Cambodia authoritarian leadership – quick decisive action – is often perceived as good leadership. In contrast “action-centred” leadership, based on consultation in the team and people affected, is often regarded as bad. There loyalty to the leader and dutiful obedience is still endemic despite being the root cause of tragedies like the Khmer Rouge rule.


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