What’s in a name? Rather too much for some people, apparently (Sir Humphrey and the Professors).

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?

3 thoughts on “What’s in a name? Rather too much for some people, apparently (Sir Humphrey and the Professors).

  1. Apologies if you felt this was a personal attack, it was meant as a personal defence of Carole and myself. I felt your piece impugned our research, read things into a single phrase that weren’t there in order to score some points and ignored one of the authors. If perhaps you’d said anything substantial or positive about our report I might not have responded so negatively. But again, apologies.

  2. I am sorry if I seemed to impugn your work, that was not at all my intention. My post was not primarily about your report at all, I was using it as an illustration of the use of the Yes, Minister meme and, as you said, there isn’t a strong link between the title and the content. I did read the paper and found it interesting but didn’t feel I had anything particular to say about it, given the wider topic of the post. My comment on it was intended simply to make the point that the survey’s scope was wider than the title could be read as implying. If that came across as being dismissive of the underlying research, I regret that.

    I am also sorry not to have given proper attribution to the research: that was careless though I don’t accept that it was sexist (it was the result of coming to the work through the frame of your tweets, and I am pretty sure that I would have equally overlooked a male co-author).

    But I stand by the view that using Sir Humphrey as a collective noun for senior civil servants is unhelpful and a bit pejorative. There are many criticisms which can be made both of the civil service and of the partnership between ministers and civil servants, but implying that it all comes down to manipulative permanent secretaries and indecisive ministers obscures more than it illuminates.

    The interesting question is how we make the system as a whole work better – and that is the debate I hope we can continue.

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