“This is a most unfortunate affair; and will probably be much talked of. But we must stem the tide of malice, and pour into the wounded bosoms of each other, the balm of sisterly consolation … Unhappy as the event must be … we may draw from it this useful lesson; that loss of virtue … is irretrievable … that … reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful …”
I hope the Janeites among you will forgive me for playing a bit fast and loose with Mary Bennet’s unhelpful platitudes to her sisters as they contemplated the ruin of Lydia’s elopement. But Mary’s words immediately came to my mind as the story of HMRC boss Dave Harnett’s ‘no need for apology’ interview came back to bite him on the bum. Just before, in fact, he issued an apology.
The reputation of public service and public servants is brittle just now for all sorts of reasons. Is this going to make it harder for former public servants like me to find a role outside of the public sector? The short answer is that it certainly can’t help.
As the inevitable media feeding frenzy started in response to Mr Barnett’s unwise words I wondered how many HMRC staff, the ordinary folks who assess and collect tax or support those who do, had their heads in their hands. Like it or not public service and public servants are not getting a good press. Often it seems to me that it’s the ordinary folks providing extraordinary services that are getting splattered by the rotten fruit hurled at their leaders.
To test my theory out I did a quick internet trawl on UK stories featuring public servants. The following epithets seemed the most popular: ‘fat cats’; ‘overpaid’; ‘inefficient’; ‘pen-pushers’; ‘council jobsworths’; ‘council snoopers’; ‘non-jobs’; and, so on ad nauseam. Any of that familiar to you?
It often seems like the whole ethos of public service is considered suspect and that any one involved in it is plainly up to no good. A lot of this feeling stems from the still smouldering public anger about parliamentary expenses. Someone who I respect greatly said to me the other day that they were impressed by the success of all politicians in dragging the wider public service into the vat of public opprobrium that they were still floundering around in.
In public servants’ case however the target of public anger has been spending that appears unwise or profligate. So all public servants become spendthrifts with gold-plated pensions whooping it up at public expense. There was much merriment to be had for sure with DCLG sofas, RDA entertaining and Audit Commission pot plants. All good knock about stuff but what happens when the object of ridicule is plain wrong? In the Commission’s case racecourse junketing turned out to be hiring conference facilities at race courses to provide training for local council accountants. Not an obvious junket.
But no-one is interested in this now. Busy journalists have now moved on somewhere else and anyway the story has become a ‘media fact’ without ever being true. The same has happened elsewhere and is sure to happen again. My concern is how this tide of negative publicity affects my ability – as a redundant public servant – to persuade any organisation outside of the public sector to think of me as something other than a lazy wastrel bloated on taxpayers’ expense.
I haven’t had any brainwaves on this front. Another colleague said to me recently that they were beginning to downplay our employer while ‘bigging up’ their achievements and skills. Well, it will be interesting to see if this approach works.
I do think though that public commentators need to exercise a little more care in how they characterise public servants who, in my experience, are overwhelmingly concerned to do good for others not themselves. By all means criticise waste, inefficiency and venality and the government’s transparency drive will make some of that easier to do. But can we lay off attacking public servants as an undifferentiated class of people on whom any old recycled media myth can be stuck?
I will not hold my breath. Meanwhile where did I leave my pot of balm?