29 JULY 1905, Page 15


SiR,—In an article in the National Review some months ago (January, 1905), Sir Godfrey Lushington, while endeavouring

to defend the conduct of the Home Office in the Beck case, took the opportunity to eulogise at considerable length the system of business now adopted in that Office, as opposed to that which was in force up to a few years ago. He points out that the junior clerks are now allowed a very large license and latitude in the expression of their opinions, and are encouraged

to write "minutes" and suggest action on papers, even of the highest importance, before they are passed on to the heads of the Office for decision. This practice is one which has crept

in during a comparatively recent period, and is entirely contrary to the older and, as I venture to think, better traditions of the Service.

It may seem to some that the matter is one of purely depart- mental concern, and not worthy of public discussion ; but I would ask to be allowed to explain my reasons for differing from this conclusion, and for holding that the system of " sub-minuting " so much praised by Sir G. Lushington is bad in principle, injurious to the interests of the Office and of the public, and defective in its results. I do not speak hastily or without experience, for I have myself served for thirty-six years in a Secretary of State's office where the former and present systems were, and are, almost exactly similar to those in force in the Home Office.

I was brought up officially at the feet of men like Herman Iderivale, Lord Blachford, and Sir Henry Taylor, among the ablest of Civil servants, and the idea of a youngster fresh from a public school or University, or even from a Board-school, presuming to spoil official paper and waste official time by the expression of his crude and undigested " views " and "sugges- tions" is enough to make those eminent men turn uneasily in their graves. It would have been an unfortunate day under their regime for any junior clerk who had ventured to act in such a way. But Sir G. Lushington says the "change has answered its purpose : it has saved much time ; but indirectly it has also resulted in I can hardly say how valuable an im- provement by providing an interest and an official education for the junior clerks."

On these points I join issue, and must venture to differ in tote from even so competent an authority. The change has certainly not "saved time," but is rather productive of much waste of that precious article, and if it really affords "an interest and an official education for the junior clerks," it is at the expense of the much more valuable time of their superiors. Sir G. Lushington says : "Now, the most junior of the first-class clerks, when a set of papers is put into his hands, can deal provisionally with it just as if he were dealing finally with it, as if, say, he was Under-Secretary. He composes and signs the mandate, and prefixes to it such remarks, if any, as are necessary." If he confined himself to " necessary " remarks, there would not be so

much to be said ; but my experience is that these junior clerks think that it is " necessary " to express their own personal views, sometimes at great length ; and what can be the value of the views of a clerk of perhaps six months' standing on matters of, it may be, high Imperial policy ? Their remarks, if they are allowed to " minute " at all, which I think should not be permitted until they have had at least three years' experience of official work, should be confined to a statement of facts and reference to any previous papers or decisions which may assist their superiors in the consideration of the case.

The article goes on to say that after the junior has had his say, "the paper is then passed on to his superior, and by him to his superior, until it reaches the officer, whoever he may be, on whose authority the mandate is to be sent out." Each of these persons not only has to read the papers, but the observations in the pre- ceding minutes, and each probably thinks it necessary to submit his views (especially if they differ at all from those previously expressed) at length, so that when the paper eventually reaches the unfortunate Under-Secretary or Secretary of State, he has a mass of (often) irrelevant matter and conflicting—and possibly worthless—opinions to wade through. Does it not stand to reason that this must involve a great waste, and not a saving, of time? Whereas if he had before him only the remarks of one or two experienced and trustworthy officials, on whose judgment and guidance he could rely, his task of final decision would be simplified and assisted. And this was the old practice which has unfortunately been superseded.

It seems to me that Sir G. Lushington gives away his whole case when he says that the minutes are "nothing more than suggestions, perhaps the products of junior clerks learning their business and stumbling along the road." What the value of suggestions by persons "learning their business and stumbling" can be it is difficult to see. Let the junior clerks learn their business by making themselves thoroughly acquainted with the practice and routine of the Office, and by studying the minutes and drafts of their superiors ; and then, in due course of time, they will be qualified to offer " suggestions " which may be valuable and practical, and of real assistance to those with whom the final decision of important matters rests. This was the practice when I first entered the Civil Service and for many years after, and I venture to say that the clerks of that time were fully as capable as those of the present day, and the routine work of the Office was more carefully and effectually performed.

One more remark, and I have done. Sir G. Lushiugton says : "No number or importance of sub-signatures dispenses the Under-Secretary from reading the papers which he minutes ; he is bound to read them before he signs." Of course he is so bound, and I am quite certain that in the majority of cases the duty is faithfully performed. But Under-Secretaries are but men after all, and they are mostly very busy men, and their work has to be done at high pressure. Is it not a great temptation to one of them, when a paper comes before him overloaded with "minutes," either to read the " minutes " and decide upon them without much regard to the papers, or to ignore the " minutes " altogether, in which latter case the time absorbed in the prepara- tion of these elaborate "suggestions" is entirely wasted ? I am strongly of opinion that the present system is productive of many evils, not the least of which is the fact that it fosters and encourages an intellectual arrogance among the junior clerks which leads them to despise and shirk the more humble, but not the less useful, part of their duties. The "cocksureness" of the rising race of Civil servants (I speak within my own experience) is remarkable. They appear to have never heard of the saying that "we are none of us infallible ; not even the youngest." The following story, which, if not actually true, is at least ben trovato, is perhaps not inappropriate. A young University man had obtained an appointment in (let us say) the Treasury. He soon afterwards went up to his College, and was entertained by the head. After dinner, in the Common Room, a don said he wished to propose the health of their young friend, who, he understood, had already acquired so high a position in the Government service that there were few, if any, questions of importance upon which his opinion was not asked,—or, if not, at least it was always given ! This young gentleman was not a singular or unique example, and I submit that any system which tends to encourage and develop such juvenile priggishness and assurance is dangerous and greatly to be deprecated.

—I am, Sir, &c., Ex-C.O.

[" Ex-C.0." raises a most important and interesting problem in public administration, but we cannot say that he convinces us. On the contrary, we agree with Sir Godfrey Lushington as to the advisability of encouraging young clerks to think and express their views for what they are worth, instead of allowing their minds to be atrophied by nothing but routine work. Nothing but routine work is the best receipt to make a dull and useless functionary. Unless there is cub-hunting, there will never be good hounds.— ED. Spectator.] [*.* We have to acknowledge with thanks the receipt of a contribution from " Viator" for the benefit of the old couple mentioned in our article, "Yeoman's Service," of August 6th, 1904.—En. Spectator.]