Compliance and Creativity: In public service words matter

Richard Attenborough made an observation from his making of the movie, Oh What a Lovely War. During coffee breaks the extras would hang out on the set – most in the uniforms of Privates and NCOs, a few in the uniforms of officers. The ‘regulars’ would sit around or lie on straw or grass casually chatting, while those in ‘officers’ uniform would stand with straightened backs, slapping their legs with their swagger sticks. All were paid the same daily rate.


So. Which of the following speaks to your hopes for public service? They say the same thing – or do they?

  1. Our aim is to deliver high quality services with efficiency and effectiveness. We will deploy our workforce assets against performance targets so as to maximise client satisfaction and to ensure compliance with strategic goals. We will continue to drive down costs through flexible working and SMART objectives. We will have zero tolerance for falling short of required outcomes.


  1. Our efforts are focused on the quality of our service to our public. We are mindful of the challenge of staying effective while working with ever-reducing budgets and increasing demand. To meet this challenge will mean listening to and working with everyone – including those who need and those who provide our services. We will draw from the commitment and experience of all, from the judgement of our publics and the wisdom of our practitioners. Creativity in responding to our challenges will be sought out at all levels and rewarded. We will not be afraid of trying and failing, so long as we learn and improve as a result.

The first of these, cast in the language of what President Dwight D. Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex”:

It is saturated with a philosophy of technical mastery, with the idea that the only useful test of a goal is whether we have the technical resources to meet it. The vocabulary is designed to transmit confidence that events can be controlled, and a latent indignation at those who might frustrate that control. If everyone is compliant with the planners then what can be said can be done and what can be done can have an impact. ‘Follow the orders, get the trajectory of the shell correct and the target will be eliminated’.

This carries an implicit hierarchy with those who invent solutions and new futures at the top, and those who are supposed to implement these at the bottom – the hierarchy is redolent of command-and-control. Managers are distinguished from workforce in that they live in a world of solutions in which you communicate through instructions and orders; whereas the practitioner lives in a world of problems where we communicate through compliance and occasional complaint.

The second is quite different in every regard. It appears to turn hierarchy on its head, acknowledging that useful ideas can be found in all corners. It speaks of a world in which we have to strive, but in which we have to settle for (but not be satisfied with) what circumstances allow. Here we live in an imperfect world and one which cannot be easily subjugated to technical control. Indeed, technique is reduced in importance and the human aspects of wisdom and creativity brought to the foreground. There is no assumption, as in #1, that meeting objectives is enough, but the commitment is, rather, to the more profound, embedded, experienced aspiration that is ‘quality’.

#1 is depersonalised and authoritarian in tone; #2 is inclusive and democratic. In musical terms, #1 plays to the simple, plodding harmonies of the marching band, whereas #2 insists upon a more mindful, personalised choreography. More corrosive still, #1 tends to the mediocre whereas #2 promises more. To pre-specify an outcome and then insist on nothing more but that is to court undershooting and self-justification – why be ambitious if the penalties for failure outweigh the rewards for meeting more than expectations? But to insist on creativity and allow tolerance of failure encourages risk-taking and rewards accomplishment.

The experience of working in the public sector (I worked in universities and I researched numerous public sector activities in criminal justice, health, social services and so on) is akin to living under a command-and-control system. This operates at the level of values (compliance above creativity, settling for the mediocre, uncritical respect for authority, requirement rather than rights) but also at the more basic level of instinct. While #1 instinctively instils fear of authority and trepidation over our efforts – will they be enough? #2 instinctively makes all our efforts, weaknesses, strengths, accomplishments and failures symmetrical – shared by all in the same way. Authority under #2 rests on mutual respect; under #1 it is based on dread of force.


How easily we have taken to the militaristic language of public sector interactions, buying-in to the absurd fiction that a person is to be feared and respected because they have a different title or embody different skills. How gullible we are to the pretence that organisations have ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ and that ‘ups’ are to be rewarded more highly than ‘downs’. But the real paradox of social organisation is that all authoritarians and dictators rely on consent more than compliance. When a complete city record of the Nazi Gestapo (secret police) was discovered in recent years it showed that there were no more than four officers assigned to a large district. It was enough. Citizens surveilled each other. Perhaps we excuse ourselves by complaining about compliance pressures when, perhaps in a Freudian sense, we invite our control-by-consent, settling for the ‘devil we know’, the transparent limits to our freedoms.

But how prey are we to having both consent and control triggered by language. Give us a ‘swagger’ stick and we will swagger; call it a ‘cane’ and we will commit violence against a child; call it a ‘walking stick’ and we will lean against it. Call it a ‘target’ and we will take mindless aim; call it an ‘aspiration’ and we will draw on our wisdom to measure its feasibility and worth.

Eisenhower told us to “beware the military-industrial complex” for its distorting effect on  politics and economics – and spirituality. He may even then have had a sense of the distorting power of its vocabularies.

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