Most organisations profess to live by values – values they publicise and appeal to as part of their daily lives.
The question we ask here is: what are values, and how does an organisation know whether it is living by the right ones? Instead of answering this in the abstract, we look at the ongoing debate about the values of the civil service. Many features of this debate are generalisable. They tell us something important about values, and organisations, across the board.
What puts civil service values in the spotlight at the moment is the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech on 18 November. This Bill responds to long-standing demands to place the traditional values of the civil service on a statutory footing.
In reviewing something as fundamental as its values, the civil service faces the same challenge as any other organisation – that of making sure it launches the argument from the right point. By going straight to arguments about the content of values, the danger is of bypassing prior arguments about their standing and purpose. Our analysis confronts that danger. It approaches the issue of civil service values from first principles, identifying their place, rationale, and limits.
We argue that in ascribing values to actors and agencies we should already have in mind an account of the place and function of such actors and agencies in the world. An account of values must fall in behind an account of place and function, not the other way around. For example, the values that inform the dealings family members have with one another are not – and should not be – the same as those that inform the dealings that a court of law has with those appearing before it.
This is not the same as saying ‘anything goes’ or ‘context is everything’: it would be hollow indeed for an organisation dedicated to wrongdoing to claim it was only being true to its values. But it does mean that any account of the values required of an organisation – whether in the private, public, or third sectors – must begin with an account of what it is there to do and be. Arguments of this kind can be controversial: of any organisation it will be true that there are competing conceptions of why we need it and whose interests it exists to serve. But such arguments are also unavoidable if we are to get our story straight about values.