IN ENGLAND the civil servant is usually the silent servant. He is rarely heard of except when for election purposes the public is assured that he costs too much. The public is then reminded of the time-honored riddle as to why they (the civil servants) resemble the fountains in Trafalgar Square, and the answer "because they play from ten to four" is generally accepted as both witty and convincing. The public forgets the equally amusing discovery of an intelligent observer that the British Empire was really governed by a clerk in a back room in the Colonial Office. The truth is between the two, but probably much nearer the latter than the former.

Government is not a state of affairs, it is action, and action means that things are done. Without a civil service, government would be paralyzed. The civil service is not a luxury but a necessity. Without it government could not function and civilization would stop. The function of the civil service has, however, undergone a change, a change which is inevitable because the whole conception and functions of government have changed. It used to be the proud boast of the civil servant that he decided nothing, he only executed orders. For that reason he could never be attacked. The responsibility was the responsibility of his political chief alone. That is still the theory; but the civil service, like every other organization, has had to adapt itself to new circumstances, and the theory is no longer rigidly true.

The responsibility of the civil service has altered because the functions of government have altered. Government is no longer something other than the people who are governed. It has become simply an aspect of their activity. Authority circulates in the body politic like blood in the individual. The stoppage of that circulation means death. Authority flows up to the political leaders from the mass: it feeds back through the organs of the civil service. Taxes must be collected, the expenditure of state money must be supervised, armies and navies have to be maintained, justice must be administered, laws must be enforced, the citizen's rights must be protected, and so on down to the detail of the registration of a patent, the inspection of a factory, the inquiry into a railway accident and so on. The people will cease to provide authority to the top if it is not returned in these and a thousand other ways. And the only channel by which such a return is possible is through an organization whose business it is to see that all these things are done.

Thus the civil service is an essential part of the body politic. If it functions badly the body politic is ill and the illness may be as dangerous as illness anywhere else in the system.

But in the case of the body politic the problem is complicated because the structure of that body is subject to alteration. The evolution of man is the affair of millions of years; the evolution of the state is the affair merely of generations. A study of one function of the state in isolation may therefore be misleading to a dangerous degree. The problem suggests the difference between the old Flemish painters and Whistler. The Flemish painters worked at each detail till it was perfect; a picture was the sum of a hundred small pictures all fitting into the original design. Whistler could only get his effects by painting so rapidly that his picture was spoiled if at any time any part of it dried while he was working on another part. He had to cover his whole surface at once so that the colors would run together, so that there would be none of those lines which he asserted nature did not contain. In the picture of the state, if we would see it as it is and not as a theoretical abstraction, all the colors are wet; we cannot dry out a part of it and examine it at leisure; if we do, the result is a dead patch which no longer fits into the whole.

To see the function of the civil service in the state, therefore, we have to see the state like a Whistler picture in the process of being painted. We must try to see it over a period of time and not just one part of it at a particular time. At the beginning the king is the fountain of authority: the early civil service has only to execute the king's will. Then the growth of democratic power begins to define a flow of authority upwards: a corresponding specialization must result in the downward flow, the channels must be multiplied and distinguished. The character of legislation becomes positive: things have to be done for the people rather than things forbidden to them or exacted from them. Not only have taxes to be paid or crimes forbidden, but sickness has to be cared for, accidents compensated, old age pensioned, children protected, the unemployed supported, and so on. The action of the civil service has now to be different: it has to be constructive and it has to be interpretative. A sickness insurance act bringing into insurance ten million workers cannot do more than lay down general principles. It is for the civil service to adapt those principles to ten million individual cases. The line between legislation and administration becomes of necessity more vague. The old strict distinction between law and administration, like Whistler's line, does not exist.

Let us look at the process of legislation a little more closely. In the earliest days the king legislated in the full sense of the word: he listened to petitions to legislate and decided whether he would or would not accede to them, and if he did, decided what the content of the legislation should be. Then an elementary democracy gained the right to suggest to him subjects for legislation, but he alone determined its substance and extent. Then a more advanced democracy suggested both the matter and the terms of the legislation, the king retaining the right to amend. Next, all suggestions had to be accepted or rejected in toto. And lastly the exercise of the veto became practically obsolete and the king's placet became a formality never refused to legislation which had obtained a parliamentary majority.

But there is now in process a still further evolution. What happened to the King of England is happening to the Houses of Parliament. As regards an increasing number of bills, the Houses of Parliament can do no more than decide either to accept or to reject them. For example, if a bill deals with one of the innumerable technical aspects of modern industrial civilization it has probably been a matter of agreement outside of Parliament with the organized interests concerned. To accept an amendment in the House is to destroy the value of such agreements, to legislate against the considered view of the industry or interest concerned, and hence, if it be a technical matter, to obtain legislation which will be either useless because irrelevant, or impossible or difficult to enforce without friction and expense. In legislation of this kind the Houses of Parliament possess in fact no more than a veto. The real legislative power has passed to the interests concerned, in consultation with the minister and the civil servants. The latter have the power of suggestion and persuasion, the former the power of decision, and Parliament the power of veto. It is a change which, if little perceived, is none the less fundamental.

The change in the rôle of the civil servant is clear. He is no longer a mere tool. He has not only to interpret legislation in order to apply it to individual cases, but he has to play a considerable rôle in its elaboration.


In the international field there has been a similar evolution; the technician has replaced in certain fields the diplomat, first as a pure technician, secondly as a negotiator. The difference between the national and the international development is that the national civil servant has been able to adapt himself to his new tasks. When specialization was required, the civil service itself developed the specialization which was necessary. In the international field, on the other hand, the diplomat has remained aloof and the specialists have come into his domain from outside.

The fundamental importance which public administration has assumed in national life suggests how great may be the significance of the creation of a permanent international administration. Does it in fact possess, or will it develop, the same influence as that which modern national administrations exercise over the decisions of the institutions which they serve?

At this point we must make an important distinction. A national civil service is the mechanism by which laws are administered. The law which the civil servant administers is the law of his own state, and beyond that field he cannot go. But the international civil servant has no law to administer. Like the national civil servant, he must act within a constitution -- for example, the Covenant of the League. But the Covenant of the League is not a constitution in the ordinary sense and it does not set up bodies which make law, but bodies which negotiate treaties. The international civil servant has therefore to deal with a body of treaties and not with a body of law. He does not even deal with the general body of international law, though part of it may be embodied in treaties and thus come within his sphere, and though he may find in its principles useful guidance. The fact that he is administering treaties and not law determines many conditions of his work which are different from those of the national civil servant. The national civil servant is working inside a system of which he is part and parcel. The international civil servant is working outside all national systems. The one is administering a single body of law, a coherent expression of a single community; the other is administering treaties, some of which may lay down general rules but many of which represent a series of contracts between very diverse communities.

Law is a very definite thing. But even where treaties lay down general rules there is by no means general agreement as to their legislative character, and when they are (or are regarded as) contracts their interpretation depends in large measure on the parties to them. If the parties agree, they can decide that a treaty means something other than what it appears to say. An identical clause in two treaties between two different sets of parties may be thus interpreted in two absolutely contradictory directions. If it is convenient for one set of parties to interpret it one way, no desire for uniformity will weigh against such an application.

Thus the international civil servant has a very different foundation for his work than the national civil servant. The latter has something firm and definite beneath his feet: the former may be building on sand or even on quicksand.

There is another important difference between the two services. The state is a highly developed organism. The League is a very embryonic organism. When national chiefs have decided towards what destination to navigate the ship of state, the captain and the crew are well equipped for the voyage, having had a long experience of navigation and seamanship. But the League is not a ship. It is a miscellaneous collection of craft attempting to sail in a convoy, uncertain of its destination, setting out on an uncharted sea. Each ship has its own navigators. They have this in common, that they dislike sailing in convoy. Each would prefer more sea room. "Every state for itself and God for us all," as Canning had it. But in convoy the quicker must wait for the slower; they may run into one another in the dark, or in the fog (which is frequent), or they may find when the fog rises that they have gone off in opposite directions -- perhaps with the best intentions, perhaps in the hope that this new and troublesome convoy system may become so troublesome as to be abandoned. And somewhere in the middle is the convoy staff, afloat on a primitive raft. It is not allowed to have a ship. The states keep a jealous monopoly of ships and the convoy staff must not be allowed to think that it is on a footing of equality. If it had a ship it might hoist an admiral's flag -- and then, where would be the freedom of the seas! The convoy staff pleads and persuades. The course is a zigzag. It is more important to keep the fleet together than to make progress with a part of it.

There is another fundamental difference between national and international administration. The national civil servant has a definite political head who is responsible for anything that is done. His authority is supreme, his responsibility correspondingly complete. Thus the civil servant has some minister to whom he can always turn for a decision, someone who will accept all the opprobrium which may be forthcoming if that decision is unpopular. But internationally there is no minister. In the League there is of course the Council and in the Labor Organization the governing body. But they are not there all the time. In the intervals between sessions the heads of the respective administrations have no one to whom they can turn. It is true that they can, and do, hold up important decisions till the next meeting. But there are limits to the degree to which this expedient can be applied. Moreover, a political headship which is a committee and not an individual can clearly deal with fewer questions. When every question has to be the matter of discussion and agreement the number of questions which can be dealt with must be comparatively small. There is therefore a special responsibility on the head of an international service even if it is only the choice between the questions held over and the questions which he decides shall be dealt with without delay. He can of course slow the whole administration down to the pace of his Council, but fortunately this is more true in theory than in fact. When the Council itself gives a decision requiring action, it is not likely to be content if no action is taken because some point arises, not regarding the decision itself but regarding its application.

Thus generally we may say that the international administration has to exercise a special judgment and responsibility in circumstances in which a national administration would turn to its minister. The head of an international administration has therefore to take decisions which in a national administration would be called political.

But there is a much more important consequence of the absence of an individual political head. If the administration takes a decision in the circumstances outlined above, and it gives rise to an incident or to criticism, who is to defend it? Clearly it can only be the administrator himself. He must be prepared to justify his action not to an individual but to a committee, and thus he is led inevitably to take part in Council discussions, and must do what a minister does in a parliament, attempt to secure a sufficient majority, if not unanimity, in favor of his action. And if he fails to secure sufficient support he would no doubt have to resign, although there is no constitutional provision to that effect.

But there is yet a third feature of the problem. What is to be done when a decision not of the official but of the Council itself is attacked outside -- attacked, that is, in the press or in one of the national parliaments? In the majority of cases the Council cannot defend itself. To begin with, it may not be in session, or it may have become divided. The position is a curious one, because while there may be an opposition there is no government. Is the minority alone to put its case before public opinion? Is there to be nobody to defend the solution adopted by the majority, the solution which the civil servant has to apply? The question is a very difficult one, but it must be solved. If the valid decisions taken by a majority in an international body are to be attacked, and if there is no defense of them, the cumulative moral effect might be such as to destroy all public confidence in the international institution concerned.

The answer is, of course, that the defense can only be made by the civil servant, and that is what actually happens. But when the international civil servant is thus called on to explain the real significance of a decision which he is responsible for executing, he runs the risk of being accused of a lack of impartiality. It may be asserted that he is taking sides, entering into controversy, or making that dreadful thing called propaganda. And in a certain sense he is. He has to develop a new and very difficult technique so that he shall not overstep limits which, although they cannot be defined, are none the less real and dangerous. This necessity has moreover a further consequence. It is clear that if the civil servant has to envisage the possibility of having to defend such decisions, he will tend to give them not only a technical but a political preparation. He will weigh not only the strictly administrative elements but also the political elements. Thus not only when a decision is challenged or criticized, but throughout the whole function of administration, the political element will enter in because each decision will in greater or less degree be the subject of political appreciation, and perhaps preparation, by the international civil servant.

This would be a rather startling and perhaps a disturbing fact in international administration were it not that something not very different is happening in national administration. In the administration of laws which affect interests, laws which have been really made in agreement with such interests and which are dependent on the collaboration of such interests for effectual application, the civil servant in taking such decisions as are within his discretion will naturally weigh the extent to which they will meet with approval or protest. In all this he is performing a function not very different from that performed by the international civil servant. It is not, therefore, that the thing is different. It is that in the case of the international civil servant the substitution of a committee for an individual as a political head makes such decisions more wide-reaching and more frequent. And in his case they are accompanied by special risks. The national civil servant has always his minister to consult. If he does not cover his responsibility the fault is his own. The international civil servant has no minister, he has either a committee, or what is worse, a majority and a minority. And the minority may accuse him of propaganda contrary to its interests. Impartiality was a characteristic of which the civil servant was proud. But we must not exaggerate its importance. It is clear that in the new circumstances it cannot be pushed so far as to mean paralysis.

The more fundamental thing is confidence. Impartiality in the sense of silence in face of attack, or complete disinterestedness as to the fate of a decision, is no longer possible if administration itself is to go on. What has to grow up by experience is a different quality. To do nothing is easy. To defend the decisions of a majority and yet not to injure the rights of a minority, or even their prospects of reversing a decision distasteful to them, is a task demanding the highest qualities of judgment, discretion and courage. It is the task which the international civil servant has to face. There can be no rules for his guidance. Only experience will develop a keen sense of what should and should not be done. That the task is not impossible may be seen from the success with which it has already been accomplished. There was never a task performed by the old diplomats which demanded such delicate handling. The change from diplomacy to administration will not mean that the highest qualities displayed in the former will not be required in the latter. On the contrary, they are necessary in even greater degree, and others in addition.

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  • E. J. PHELAN, Chief of the Diplomatic Division of the International Labor Office, Geneva
  • More By E. J. Phelan