Frank Stacey Memorial Lecture 2008: Scenes from the Departmental Court

AuthorR.A.W. Rhodes
Published date01 October 2009
Date01 October 2009
Subject MatterFeatures Section: Policy and Practice Perspectives


Frank Stacey Memorial
Lecture 2008: Scenes from
the Departmental Court
R. A. W. Rhodes
University of Tasmania and Australian National University, Australia
This article argues for research grounded in interpretive theory, or the beliefs
and practices of actors, and observational fieldwork, or thick descriptions
of what the actors think they are doing. However, discussions of theory and
method only come to life when they are grounded in fieldwork. So, at the heart
of the article is an account of the Private Offices of British central government
departments. I argue that the focus on beliefs and practices enables me to tell
a new story. The existing literature does not explore how the individuals who
comprise the department’s core executive coordinate the department’s tasks
and resolve conflicts. There is a ‘departmental court’ that dare not speak its
name. By describing the court ‘at work’, I focus not on individual Private
Offices but on the tasks of coordination and conflict resolution at the top of the
department. I conclude that any approach that provides new evidence and a
novel interpretation makes a strong case for inclusion in the armoury of every
student of public administration.
British government, civil service, departmental court, interpretive theory,
observation, Private Office
I seek to tell a new story about the work of British government departments. My
story shifts the focus from the individual Private Offices of Ministers to the depart-
mental court as the locus for managing coordination and conflict at the top of the
department. This shift matters. The departments are the key policy making unit in
British government. The several ministers, the permanent secretaries, other top
officials and the private offices comprise the department’s core executive. How

this core executive coordinates policy making and resolves conflicts is central to
the effective working of the department. Ethnography is the tool used to compile
the story. It is an approach ‘marked less by a perfection of consensus than by a
refinement of debate’ – ‘what gets better is the precision with which we vex each
other’ (Geertz, 1973, Ch. 1). I seek to vex my readers by arguing for a focus on
the beliefs and practices of actors, and for ‘being there’, or observation, as the best
way of recovering beliefs and practices.
Interpretive approaches begin with the insight that to understand actions and
institutions, the researcher needs to grasp the relevant meanings, the beliefs and
preferences, of the people involved. An interpretive approach constructs the mean-
ing of social actions by recovering other people’s stories. So, I concentrate on
meanings, beliefs and practices, not laws and formal rules, correlations between
social categories, or deductive models. In this paper, I focus on understanding the
beliefs and practices of British senior civil servants and their Ministers (and for
a more detailed account of an interpretive approach, see Bevir and Rhodes 2003,
Ethnography ‘captures the meaning of everyday human activities’, and encour-
ages the researcher to get out there and see what actors are thinking and doing
(Hammersley and Atkinson, 1983, p. 2). It seeks to understand day-to-day prac-
tices, and how these practices become meaningful. It encompasses many ways of
collecting qualitative data about beliefs and practices, including historical archives,
textual analysis of official documents, biographies, oral histories, recorded inter-
views, and informal conversations. I use such data to provide a ‘thick description’
of the central secretariat of British government departments. In other words, I
provide my ‘constructions of other people’s constructions of what they and their
compatriots are up to’ (Geertz, 1973, p. 9). I draw on three sources of information:
‘the pattern of practice, talk, and considered writing – the first is the most reliable,
the second is the most copious and revealing and the third is the most difficult to
interpret’ (Oakeshott, 1996, p. x).1
Writing Scenes
One of the more stubborn problems in writing up observational fieldwork is how to
turn messy day-to-day experiences into a considered written account. Van Maanen
(1988, p. 35) declares ‘there is no way of seeing, hearing, or representing the world
of others that is absolutely, universally valid or correct’. In earlier work, I told a
chronological story about a day in the life of a Minister (Rhodes, 2007). On this
occasion, I have written scenes and dialogue. Scenes are story segments that I use
as building blocks to develop specific themes. The scenes are always in the offices

of the central secretariat, written from the point of view, and sometimes in the
words, of its inhabitants, and cover moments in time not days or weeks. Dialogue
refers to reciprocal conversations, sometimes in the form of semi-structured inter-
views but also, during the observational fieldwork, they were part of my everyday
conversations at the office. There is no unfolding storyline or character develop-
ment. I present dialogue from the interviews in italics. Scenes from the fieldwork
notebooks (FWNB) are in roman font. To guard against the criticism that I have
picked only juicy quotes from my interviews and fieldwork notebooks, I cite other
insider accounts. These citations are illustrative, not comprehensive. In this way,
I can follow my own advice and compare observed practice (from my fieldwork),
talk (from interviews and conversations), and considered writing (from autobiog-
raphies, memoirs, diaries, speeches and lectures). Also, readers always know my
‘The Natives are Hospitable’: The Story So Far
In Britain, the Private Office has not attracted much attention from academics,
practitioners or journalists. As Sir Nicholas Henderson (1984, 2001 edn, p. xvi)
observes: ‘I do not think that widespread ignorance of the role of the Private Office
matters. On the contrary, I think it is better that way’. Many will know the famous
quote from Richard Crossman (1975, p. 618) describing his Private Office under
John Delafons as a ‘Rolls Royce’. Most Ministers over the past 50 years find a
page or so in their memoirs for equivalent remarks about their Principal Private
Secretary (PPS) and their immediate Private Office (see for example Blunkett,
2006, pp. 17, 19, 319; Heseltine, 2000, p. 189; Howe, 1994, p. 395). There is also
much agreement in the literature about its role. It exists to organize the Minister’s
life and it acts as a ‘bridge’ between the Minister and the department. It is ‘essen-
tial to managing the Minister’s working life’; ‘instrumental in maintaining good
working relationships around the Minister’, ‘exhilarating places to work, provid-
ing an unequalled high altitude view of the work of a government department’;
and, ‘valuable allies for any top official working around the Minister’ (Jary, 2004,
pp. 15, 18). Richard Crossman’s (1975, p. 21) claim that the Private Secretary’s
job is ‘to make sure the Minister … doesn’t let the side or himself down’ rings true
There is even a consensus about the main problem: dual loyalty. According to
Bruce-Gardyne (1986, p. 35), the Private Secretary, ‘in Whitehall folklore, owes
his first allegiance to his Minister’. But folklore and practice can diverge. As James
(1999, p. 35) puts it, the Private Secretary ‘must explain the demands of the depart-
ment to the Minister and the political needs of his Minister to other officials’. This
Janus-faced nature of the job comes out in other ways. Michael Heseltine (2000, p.
188) refused ‘to see my private office as a training ground for junior civil servants’.
In a similar vein, David Blunkett (2006, p. 82) complained ‘the Private Office is a
training scheme for people to dib in and out of’. In short, the subsidiary function


of speaking for the department, and the even lesser role of training civil servants,
can supplant the primary function of serving the Minister.
This view of the Private Office focuses on one position and one part of the
ministerial support system. There is more to the Private Office than the Secretary
of State’s Private Office and his or her PPS. Commonly, it also comprises ministe-
rial or Special Advisers (commonly known as SpAds) who have their own Private
Secretary; the Private Offices of Ministers of State; the Permanent Secretary’s
Private Office, and some permutation of Parliamentary, Correspondence, and
Business Support units. The Permanent Secretary will head the central secretariat
with the Principal Private Secretary as the Number 2. Under the PPS are sev-
eral Private Secretaries (PS) and Assistant Private Secretaries (APS). The internal
organization of the Private Office matches the functional silos of the department.
Most ministries are divided into functional directorates, headed by a Director-
General (DG). Each PS will be responsible for several policies and problems com-
ing up from the DGs. So, one department had eight Ministers and about 80 people
supporting them.
Some departments describe...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT