Hidden from view
The unsung heroes of the civil service
On Wednesday night I joined a group of people in a London bar whose talents and resolve are such that they are allowed to advise on the most important choices that influence our lives. Keeping the power on, balancing the needs of the most vulnerable children in society, deciding when to intervene with our security services, and taking the nation’s budget to pieces and rebuilding it.
I used to work with these guys, and we were gathered because of the tragic early death of one of the best of all public servants. It was a dark pleasure to be with them again on such an evening.
I am now an outsider in their world. I get to hear a bit about what is up and who is going where, but discretion and service is why these folk have the ear and trust of the government, whatever its complexion. They are also amongst the brightest and most driven people I’ve ever met. They deal with complexity with calm reflection, and to be frank they are underpaid and normally undervalued.
Some argue that they have an army and police force in front of them and HMRC to help them raise money if the threat of non-compliance is not enough – which is a bit different from a start up, no matter how strong the senior team. They do have a very big operational team in the NHS, schools, local councils, job centres etc to make the transition from policy to delivery happen. Again, Atom and other small businesses don’t have the sheer numbers of people to implement and guide customers. And as for making and changing the law, again we know whose foot that boot sits on.
This sometimes gets translated into a lack of personal risk taking compared to an enterprising and innovative private sector. It is a point of view that I just don’t see. We all make personal choices every day, and these guys decided to take a path which put themselves and their nearest second to the job they do.
With a big degree in their hand and a ticket to life that could take them anywhere, all the people out tonight had risked an alternative that would have paid them much better to instead become civil servants. In doing so they diminished their lifetime income and put themselves into one of the fiercest intellectual battlegrounds.
Some of them then volunteer to go to war-torn places for months on end to re-build the administrations that we take for granted. Others sacrifice their identity for extended periods as they take roles that we see in BBC2 dramas about national security. None of them work 9-5 and all of them do so with a justifiable but modest smile. We need their sacrifices to continue and their passion for society to succeed. Chris Martin was a demi-god amongst them. I am proud to have been part of his world but also that I can contribute some of these skills into Atom.