Reimagining the public service ethos

Steven Parker

There are many ways to imagine the public service ethos – as an old-fashioned approach to public service delivery, or one that can be improved by closer working between different sectors.  A recent example of this is a report on ‘the new public service ethos’ (Localis 2016). The report noted a clear perception of the public service ethos among public sector staff, but that a lack of awareness between the public and private sectors had led to a perceived ‘cultural misalignment’ between them. It concluded that different sectors need to work together more closely to provide value for local public service delivery.

Associated with the view of the crumbling public service ethos (PSE) other discussions suggest that it is a zombie theory that rattles around the corridors of public administration (Spectator 2015). Rather than having relevance for contemporary public service delivery, its star has now waned and it has been hollowed out alongside its old friend the state. This perspective implies the PSE is a vessel for public service values that has sprung a leak that cannot be stemmed (Elcock 2013).

These discussions are at the heart of our interest in public management where we work within the boundaries of established theories and debates. However, because of the political and ideological nature of the public service ethos we need to question whether it has been forced into theoretical models that continue define it into a binary model of ‘either-or’, leading to the impression that it is a uniform block standing in opposition to the private sector. Examples of these binaries include ‘public sector/private sector’; ‘positive service delivery/negative service delivery’ and ‘public interest motivated worker/self-interested worker’. This is observed in the debates about the privatisation of public services, renationalisation of state assets, and union views about the motivation of public service workers.

To challenge and contribute to these theories – as well as reframing discussions of the ‘new public service ethos’ – it can be argued that there is potentially more to the public service ethos than meets the eye. Perhaps it can be visioned in a multi-level way to provide a future research agenda that provides a new lens to that of public-private service delivery, as follows:

Firstly, although presented as if members of public organisations all share the same ethos –  for example, the NHS – it is clear the public service ethos is not a uniform block and is manifested in different ways within complex organisations – a view that the binary model conceals. This means the ethos may differ in the varied teams, departments and strategic boards that exist within organisations – in this sense the macro is not always the ‘organisation’ (Parker 2015).

Secondly, it is important to remember that individuals will have their own ‘personal’ public service ethos and motivation to work within public services. In contrast to the uniform officer of the local council, there are different types of individual and professional motivation, and ethos, that underpin practice.

Thirdly, the public service ethos is not just about delivery mechanisms, providers, processes  and   services. It can be identified in tangible things that improve social justice and equality impacting on citizens in their everyday activities. Examples include access and inclusion and the way that ‘things’, for example park and play equipment, are woven into wider wellbeing strategies. Although not traditionally connected to discourse that sits around the public service ethos, there is a future research agenda that links the public service ethos with the physical environment (Parker 2015).

In sum, these perspectives provide us with other ways to describe the public service ethos, introducing new ways of representing it while challenging how we currently see it. Rather than being primarily imagined as a binary split between public and private, the approach discussed here suggests that there is potential to re-theorise the ethos as spacialities and levels. In time, this may provide the public service ethos with a new view and help to refresh its distinctive ‘selling point’ in a crowded world of theories and concepts in public management.


 Dr Steven Parker is a lecturer in INLOGOV and has over 20 years of experience in local government as a social worker, policy officer and senior manager. His main research focus is on the relationship between the public service ethos and multi-agency collaboration. He recently worked on the INLOGOV 21st Century Councillor project and he is currently researching on public value with Professor Jean Hartley at the Open University Business School.

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