Stefan Czerniawski, who goes under the blog name “Public Strategist”, has written a rather ill-informed and intemperate attack on a report we have just published based purely on the use of the term “Sir Humphrey” in the title.
Firstly, Stefan should issue a public apology for his completely sexist ignoring of the fact that the report in question was co-authored by Dr. Carole Talbot and myself. Carole apparently doesn’t exist as far as Stephan is concerned. Which suggests he either didn’t read the report before launching his diatribe or, worse, did and chose to ignore my co-author.
Second, his comments about using “Sir Humphrey” in the title is a stretch, to put it mildly.
We used the term “Sir Humphrey” (“Sir Humphrey and the Professors – What Does Whitehall Want From Academics?”) purely as short-hand, a signal that this was about the Senior Civil Service. In our experience far more people recognize the term “Sir Humphrey” to refer to senior members of the Whitehall establishment than have seen “Yes Minister”. It no greater portend than that, which is clear to anyone who actually reads the report properly.
I am tempted to suggest that Mr Czerniawski is another poor soul who has fallen amongst post-modernist deconstructionists. He is reading far too much into a single phrase.
“Sir Humphrey”, rather like “Mandarins” before it, has simply become a popular short-hand for the senior denizens of Whitehall, which is who our survey was about. (Incidentally, Stefan, a number of Grade 1 (Permanent Secretary level) civil servants did complete our survey).
Maybe we should apologise for trying too hard to make our research “impactful”, as the current fashion has it. But I must say it’s a novel sensation to be criticized, as an academic, for trying to be too populist (except by other academics that is).
What would be interesting to know is what Stefan thinks about our actual report, rather than his long-winded critique of a single phrase that is used just once – in the title.
Having said all that there is a serious debate to be had about to what degree the senior civil service has actually changed in the past 30 years. Stefan seems to think a lot: “Sir Humphrey was a permanent secretary thirty years ago. I think we can take it that he retired long since. We should let him go.”
Personally I would beg to differ, and have written rather a lot over the years showing in what respects the institutional configurations of Whitehall and its central actors have not fundamentally changed, despite some superficial modifications. They never were “Sir Humphrey” in any literal sense, but “Yes Minister” did capture some truths about how Whitehall worked and still, in large measure, does. But that’s another debate.
So how about an apology to Carole, and a blog about our actual report, Stefan?