Ten great reads for the public servant

Here is a list of ten* reads that have got me thinking in various ways. Three are non fiction seven are very insighful fiction. Most of them you will relate to if you are a public servant trying to make sense of your world.

The Smiley Novels by John le Carré

Smiley is a spy of course. But more than that he is a disillusioned public servant who has developed his practice (tradecraft)over the years but nevertheless despairs about his organisation. The three main novels are Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People (particularly the first and third of these) but I also particularly like The Secret Pilgrim where Smiley reflects on some of his past experiences with a group of trainees. Many pearls of wisdom and beautifully written.

The Beck Novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

This is a series of 10 crime books by husband and wife team Sjöwall and Wahlöö set in Sweden in the 1960s. The novels take a realist view, not just of Swedish society at the time, but of the police force of which Beck is a part. Beck wants to do a good job despite his own limitations, the shortcomings of the police service and the problems of his personal life. If you work in any large public sector organisation you will recognise the team dynamics and the brilliantly observed characters.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Written in the early seventeenth century. This is a comedy about an old man who imagines that he is a knight with special powers. Famously, he travels the land righting wrongs and ‘tilting at windmills’. But look at it another way and it’s a the story of someone determined to do some public good regardless of the negativivity that surrounds him him. As well as the importance of optimism it tells us something about how what we think is ‘good’ may not always be what it seems. It’s also funny.

Creating Public Value by Mark H. Moore

In this influential work Moore argues that society needs public servants with ‘value-seeking imaginations’ rather than employees who simply follow the tasks set by government. Moore’s focus is the idea of public value, why it’s problematic and how we should define it. This an important discussion for anyone who feels that they might have a different idea of the public good to those around them.

Street-Level Bureaucracy by Michael Lipsky

To say that this is a classic of public administration would be an understatement of classic proportions. This account of how frontline public servants could use their discretion to subvert the policy intentions of those above them was first published in 1980. Lipsky also highlights the tensions inherent in modern public services and the similarities between public servants in what otherwise might appear to be diverse roles. The book was updated in 2010 and this version includes a much more positive discussion of how a new breed of street-level bureacrats might use their discretion as a force for good.

The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli

Ok, so Machiavelli was giving advice to medievel princes on how to gain and maintain power. But what he does do brilliantly is consider the interplay of principles (virtu) and context (fortuna) and identify specific courses of action from that. A short read and also handy if you are unsure about what to do with any fortresses you might have.

The Trial by Franz Kafka

Perhaps the ultimate user experience guide for public services. The hero Joseph K discovers one morning that he has been charged with a crime but he is not allowed to know what the charge is or anything about the the process. So his nightmare begins! Also very funny.

The Overcoat by Gogol

This short story, set in the 19th Century, tells the tale of Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin — a down at heel and impoverished Russian Civil Servant whose deperate need for a new overcoat leads to a very unfortunate chain of events. As well as a providing the view from the bottom of the public service pile it is also a cautionary tale for managers.

To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee

How did I forget this one in my original list! Lee’s tale of racial tension in the deep south in the 1930’s features one of the great public service heros of literature — Atticus Finch. Not only is he a beacon of calm and a strong moral compass in the face of great provocation - but he also delivers this great public service line: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”

Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama

My latest addition, in fact I am only part way though reading this, but it has all the hallmarks of a Japanese Beck. While crime is at at the heart of the story, it’s the interpersonal and interdepartmental tensions surrounding the central character Mikami, former detective and now police public relations chief, that give this book real interest from a public servant perspective. The Japanese cultural references provide an extra layer of interest.

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So this is my list. No doubt there are others I have missed — notice in particular that all of the protagonists and all but two of the authors are white, western men. A better list would have a wider range.

Finally thanks to those who have pointed me in the right direction for some of these. Dave O’Brien and Tony Bovaird both spring to mind. Thanks to them and apologies to anyone I’ve forgotten.

*original list of eight