On Twitter recently, Ben Page of Ipsos MORI compared levels of public trust in judges, civil servants and politicians in 1983 and 2013, findings that form part of his organisation’s ongoing survey of popular trust in various professions’ ability to tell the truth.
As you can see below, he points out that judges are slightly more trusted today while politicians still lurk at a very low level indeed.
But something remarkable has happened to trust in civil servants: it has more than doubled.
Here’s the Twitter exchange:
Ben’s explanation is speculative, but apart from the ‘Yes, Minister Effect’ it is hard to identify what other factors might account for this spectacular transformation in public perceptions.
The poll archive can be found here and here is the PDF for the 2013 survey with all the abbreviations explained but below is the table in full.
As you can see, the public view of most professions has not much changed – although the clergy (Cle) has suffered a significant decline while scientists (Sci) have notably increased in trustworthiness. The civil servants (Civ) – along with trade union officials (TU) – stand out as the only groups to have doubled their perceived trustworthiness. Both groups are however still less trusted that ‘ordinary people’ (Ord) – although the gap now is much less than it once was.
The improvement in the standing of union leaders might be because they are no longer demonised (at least, not as much as they were) in the media, if only because they now have very little influence these days to be demonised about.
Within government, the civil service also has less authority than once it did, but this is not a matter many in the public might have noticed. Which takes us back to the ‘Yes, Minister Effect’.
As I discuss in my forthcoming book, A State of Play, the BBC sitcom Yes, Minister made an impressive impact on television audiences when first broadcast in 1980 until its run ended in 1988. Humphrey Appleby, the leading civil servant in the series was self-interested, snobbish and a permanent block on change in government. His ideal National Health Service hospital was one which was fully equipped, fully staffed but had no patients. As Today’s television critic put it, the series was essentially saying: ‘it doesn’t matter a bean which way we vote or which party gets in, because real power is exercised by non-elected, mostly invisible civil servants who are not accountable to anyone but themselves’. When, during the third episode of the first season, Appleby states that it is the civil service that governs rather than the politicians, there is an audible gasp from the studio audience. Shocking or not, Yes, Minister became many people’s source for understanding what Whitehall was really like – that was certainly the fear of a number of contemporary civil servants.
Sadly the Ipsos-Mori survey only starts in 1983 so we don’t know what people thought about civil servants before Yes, Minister. But the usual dramatic depiction was of rather ineffectual, lovable fools as typified in the BBC radio comedy series The Men from the Ministry, which ran from 1962 to 1977. There had however been more ambiguous depictions in the late 1940s and early 1950s in films such as Passport to Pimlico and The Happy Family, that cast Whitehall as the Pinstriped Enemy – and which I also discuss in A State of Play. Even though the top civil servant in The Happy Family was called Filch (a synonym for stealing), none was quite in the Appleby class.
Like most other aspects of cultural and political history it is unlikely that we will be able to definitively establish the exact strength of the ‘Yes, Minister Effect’. But there’s certainly a strong prima facie case for believing that it, temporarily at least, altered how the British saw the civil service.
An earlier version of this post was published at http://stevenfielding.com/the-yes-minister-effect-and-trust-in-the-civil-service/