We’re right to trust our public servants. Up to a point

Torsten Bell
Photograph: Radio Times/Getty Images

Jim Hacker, the minister of Yes Minister fame, did not always trust his civil servants. Which was fair enough – they loved stitching him up. But how much do we trust our civil servants today? A lot more than our politicians and bankers is the answer from a recent survey. And we trust other public servants such as the police and nurses even more.

We’re right to place our faith in public servants, according to a new study examining Denmark. In one of the least corrupt countries in the world, the study surveyed the career choices of students in law, economics and political science, while also testing their dishonesty. Honest students were more likely to prioritise careers benefiting others and to self-select for public service, while dishonest students were much less interested.

Are there any policy lessons from this? Yes, although they may not all be universally popular. The first is that, in debates about how countries reduce corruption, we have to think about the kind of people who are encouraged to apply for a job and hired, not just the incentives for people to behave well once they’ve got the public service uniform on.

But it’s not all good news for civil servants – the researchers went on to examine what would happen if public sector wages were higher (they are famously stingy in Denmark). More dishonest students would apply. So those in the public sector can either have a pay rise or more honest colleagues. Choices, choices.

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