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Editorial: Less bowler hat, more body armour

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Many civil servants work on the front line of public service. Sometimes this is quite literally true, as this quarter's lead article makes clear. Catriona Laing's experiences leading the Helmand Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan make for an inspiring read. Around the globe civil servants work in all sorts of roles; staff from the Ministry of Defence support senior military figures on campaign whilst others from the Department for International Development are deployed to respond to humanitarian disasters.

But there are many other civil servants on the ‘front line’. For example, as I write, Paul Foweather, governor of Full Sutton prison, has been shortlisted for the leadership award in the annual Civil Service Awards. His team, and prison staff up and down the country, carry out a core function of the state, administering sentences imposed by the criminal justice system, for the benefit of society.

Over ten times as many civil servants work in operational roles as work in any other profession in Government. Many work in public-facing roles that we are all familiar with, helping the unemployed in Job Centres, issuing visas, or running courts like the digital Magistrates’ Court you can read about in this issue. Other roles, like the inspectors of the Marine Accident Investigation Bureau in Southampton, are less familiar. The unifying factor behind all these roles is that they represent the interface between the Government and the rest of the world. No policy, no strategy will succeed if it fails the front line test, if it cannot be made to work in practice. Articles in this issue, for example from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency on road safety, and from the Foreign and Commonwealth on taking steps to improve policy making, show organisations adapting their approaches to make them work better in real-world circumstances.

One of the great things about the UK Civil Service is that staff are able to move between the front line and other posts. This is an enriching process for the individuals themselves, but also for the organisations they work for. The constant back-and-forth flow of ideas and expertise this enables will be vital to ensuring the health of public services in the coming years.

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  1. Comment by Edward Barker posted on


    Spot on, and what’s more those of us currently working on policy in Whitehall also need some frontline exposure to test whether we’re on the right track.

    The other week I spoke to a business audience in Birmingham about the ambitious Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP) we’re helping the European Commission to negotiate with the US. On the way out a small but vocal group of protesters were handing out ‘Stop TTIP’ pamphlets. Rather than try to slip past without catching their eye I steeled myself and stopped to talk it through. We certainly didn’t agree on everything, but some myths were dispelled and I took away a couple of new questions with which to test our policy and approach.

    I wouldn’t pretend that talking to supportive businesses or NGO activists it’s anything like as challenging a frontline experience as those faced by Catriona and others day in and day out, but we should all put ourselves on the frontline once in a while.