The point of a non-political civil service is to be not political. That much is obvious. It follows that civil servants must be prepared to do things which do not match their personal political preferences. That does not mean that civil servants are devoid of principle or can wash their hands of responsibility for their actions. It does mean – at least by strong implication – that they are valuing a political, legal and civil system more highly than all the specific outcomes of that system.1

That’s a perfectly reasonable position to take. It brings with it huge benefits for the system as a whole. New governments and ministers can be more rapidly effective and the skills of governance and delivering public services more easily maintained. Civil servants are proud of being able to switch instantaneously from supporting ministers of one party to those of another and are perennially worried that their values may be misunderstood or rejected by politicians who are of nature and necessity much more tribal. Ministers new to government find all that hard to credit; ministers returning to government often value it highly.

All of that allows – and requires – civil servants to put their personal opinions to one side. Civil servants, in my experience, do not lack for interest in political questions, so it’s a safe bet that at any given moment a significant proportion of them will not have voted for the governing party. But in reality, as well as in theory, government policies belong to the politicians who decide them, not to the supporting officials who develop and implement them.

All of that’s fine up to a point – but there is a very important set of questions about what that point is and what happens beyond it. That there is such a point seems to me to be unarguable. It is clearly possible for governments to do things which are beyond the pale of an individual’s conscience, and it is equally possible for such an individual to decide that they don’t want to work for the government any more.

But there’s a harder question about how bad the government should be before it becomes reasonable to criticise people who work for it. At one Godwin’s law extreme, we can look at the army of bureaucrats without whom the deadly efficiency of the holocaust could never have been achieved. They cannot escape culpability by saying that they were following orders or that they were implementing government policy – although undoubtedly they were. A powerful recent post by Megan Carpentier sets out why we cannot escape responsibility for the decisions of political leaders as though they were somehow separate from the wider political system:2

We like to think of Hitler and the Nazis as uniquely evil, but the Holocaust wasn’t just committed by Hitler and the 10 percent or so of Germans who joined the Nazi party: it was committed by tens—if not hundreds—of thousands of people throughout Europe and even the Soviet Union, many of whom said they were “just following orders,” and abetted by men and women across the continent who, at best, simply looked away as atrocities were committed in their names.

But although that’s an edge case, it tells us more than it might first appear about much less extreme circumstances. If it can ever be right for a civil servant to recognise that what they are being asked to do is so morally repugnant that they cannot conscionably do it, then it must always be right to be asking the question – indeed a failure to ask the question is itself a moral failure. But the question to be asked is not, ‘is this the thing I would choose to do myself?’ It is rather, ‘is this within the range of things a government can morally choose to do?’3 If it is not, we all own the consequences, as Carpentier argues:

If we conceive of our leaders as the only (or primary) agents of history or change, then the rest of us need to own up to the systemic injustices that our actions uphold—or, indeed, to any of the changes our chosen leaders impose and we accept.

A clear question does not, of course, guarantee a clear answer. There are parallels with the more general question of political obligation – the basis for our obligation to obey the law – which has been running for well over 2,000 years without reaching final resolution.  So it’s arguable that one reason for obeying any particular law is because there is social value in laws generally being respected. That doesn’t mean that breaking the law can’t ever be morally justified, it does mean that it shouldn’t be a casual act.

There is nothing new in any of that. But in modern democracies, it’s all been a bit abstract, because politicians and officials have occupied a sufficiently similar space for there not to be any real sense of there being a problem.4 Now some people are finding it much more real, in both the UK and the US (which I’ll discuss here) and no doubt in other countries too (which I won’t).

Both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump have sent shockwaves through their respective systems. In both cases the establishment – or what can be portrayed as the establishment – has been wrong footed; in both cases some see the outcome as being a discontinuity which goes beyond the normal alternation of political parties. But there are also some very important differences, which is hardly surprising given the very different political and institutional contexts.

In the UK, the concern has mainly been a fear that remain-voting bureaucrats will seek to frustrate the democratic clarity of the referendum result. That one is interesting because – from the inside – such a fear looks completely misplaced. The demographics of the referendum vote make it overwhelmingly likely that many of the civil servants who work most closely with ministers voted to remain. But the decision is being treated as one squarely in the normal range, where ministerial direction leads to the committed support of the civil service. There is no evidence either of a civil service fifth column or of rapid exit from a morally tainted working environment. More importantly, in the context of this post, there is no suggestion that civil servants could reasonably feel a moral, still less a constitutional, duty to frustrate the government’s approach.5

In the US the concern has been almost the opposite, that honourable people should not work for the government or that even if they do, it will no longer be possible to do honourable work.6 That partly reflects the very different structure at the top of the US federal government – the  number of senior appointments made by a new US administration is roughly the same as the size of the UK senior civil service, which in turn can mean that political influence can be much more pervasive than is normally the case in the UK.7 There has also been some press speculation that this time there may be higher than normal turnover at more junior levels.

But the real issue here is a rather different one. It is a fear that Trump will use the power he has gained through a democratic process to undermine those very democratic foundations.8 To the extent that that is justified – perhaps even to the extent that it might be justified – it does at the very least put a responsibility on every actor in the political system, civil servants included, to ask themselves whether their moral standards are in danger of being breached.

Asking the question does not force a particular answer, both because it’s legitimate to argue that it’s too early to tell, and because there is more than one ethical principle in play.  As Jennifer Pahlka noted in a stirring blog post written in the immediate aftermath of the election, urging people to stay:

In the District of Columbia, only 4% of the electorate voted for Donald Trump. But career civil servants will work for a Trump administration starting January 21st. Almost all of them will do everything they can to serve their real bosses: the American public. That’s true no matter who is in office.

But in the end, what matters is that the question is asked. Civil servants have a professional obligation to implement the policies of democratically elected governments, and take professional pride in doing so. But they are allowed – and more than allowed, required – to have a conscience and to exercise it. That’s the case not just here and now, but is an intrinsic part of being a human moral agent who happens to be a civil servant.

  1. It is no part of my argument here that many actual civil servants have thought this through terribly systematically (or, indeed, at all), simply that the behaviours and norms of the civil service suggest that this is true.
  2. Which is not to pretend that individuals have agency against dictators, though it is to assert that support for dictators is, in the end, support for what those dictators do.
  3. Even the classic judicial review test of ‘manifest unreasonableness’ may be too narrow here. It’s always right for a civil servant to identify and argue against unreasonableness; that doesn’t of itself make it right to substitute their judgement for that of ministers (or the courts).
  4. There are issues where individual conscience may have a bearing – there may be people who prefer not to work on policy on abortion, or nuclear weapons, for example, but it’s fairly straightforward to manage a career in a way which avoids the confrontation. More generally, civil disobedience is not intrinsically immoral and has widespread (though not universal) recognition as a legitimate political tactic.
  5. They will, of course, be asking challenging questions as part of the essential process for translating a high level aspiration into concrete decisions and activity – but as Jill Rutter has explained in a slightly different context, that’s precisely what they should be doing.
  6. Or so it seems to me – but my political and institutional antennae are much less fine tuned to US politics, so it is entirely possible that my perception is skewed. It’s also worth emphasising that this post is not about the Trump presidency in any wider sense and makes no attempt to cover the case for his policies and politics or the case against them.
  7. Though the total number of US federal employees is about ten times greater than the number of UK civil servants.
  8. That the US electoral system is already weak and brittle – along with the constitution which drives it – is both true and a bit beside the point, since none of those weaknesses is new. Arguably the real problem facing US political institutions is not in the power of the presidency but in the reluctance of Congress to operate the system of checks and balances on which the wider system depends.