Book Reviews

How to be a Civil Servant :  Whitehall Explained

Professor Andrew Massey, Kings College London

Reviews on Amazon

Civil Service World

Clearly, simply and authoritatively, Stanley guides his readers through the mysteries of minutes, ministers, minders, minutiae and much more besides.

ChatGPT (!)

In late 2022 I asked ChatGPT no more than to "write a blurb for my book on the UK civil service".   Its response was remarkably appropriate:

The UK civil service is the backbone of the British government, providing critical support and expertise ... Whether you are a student of public administration, a career civil servant, or simply curious about the inner workings of government, this book offers a fascinating and informative guide to the UK civil service.

A Retired Permanent Secretary

I have not had time to read it properly yet, but I look forward to doing so, over the Christmas recess if not before.  But I have seen enough to wish that it had been available when I joined the Civil Service.

Samuel Brittan in the Financial Times

Amid all the talk of spin doctors, it is useful to have a book on the ethos and working rules of the permanent civil servants who are supposed to form the backbone of British government.  The author is a civil servant who was involved in central policy advisory work.  For new officials his work will be a useful guide to rules, procedures and practices that are otherwise buried in many tomes.  But the book will also be consulted by journalists, academics, lobbyists and others.

Robert Pyper in Parliamentary Affairs

Martin Stanley's book, How to be a Civil Servant, is a guide to being a civil servant in Whitehall, mainly concerned with the task of providing policy advice to ministers.  The author, who is himself a senior civil servant, is quite open about this.  Nevertheless ... How to be a Civil Servant is something of a period piece, focusing as it does on a fairly traditional range of skills.  Most of the book could have been written at almost any point since the 1950s.  Notwithstanding these deficiencies, academics can glean from the book some useful insights into civil service negotiation approaches and strategies, and the chapter on the EU is really quite sharp.

Graeme Reid on Twitter

Martin Stanley's 'How to be a civil servant' is a masterpiece.'

Jennifer Sprinks in Public Servant Magazine

Such was the response, four years ago, to the first edition of How to be a Civil Servant, that author Martin Stanley has revised and updated it.  The book's initial print run of 2,000 proved a modest estimation of its appeal and it sold out entirely. 

A practical, exploratory guide to working in the civil service, How to be a Civil Servant offers the sort of fundamental advice that many civil servants find themselves wishing they had got their hands on sooner.

Chris Sladen in Teaching Public Administration

'Working in Whitehall' can be great fun and very rewarding', runs the first line of this book, which the author says he wrote for the benefit of fledgling mandarins but which has wider interest.  The cheery tone of that first sentence chimes with the Martin Stanley I remember from the early 1980s when he bounced into DTI from the Inland Revenue.  Presumably his job was to educate tax-illiterate officials (and Ministers) on the fiscal implications of any policy changes that we might be bold enough to float. ... He was - and I am sure still is - an amiable sort of chap, who served with distinction and good humour as Principal Private Secretary to successive Secretaries if State.  Unlike some private secretaries who, as his chapter on 'Working with Ministers' puts it, get ideas well above their station, Martin steered a canny course between becoming more political than the politicians, and setting himself up as an alternative policy adviser.  At least one of his predecessors failed to navigate this particular channel ...

Being private secretary to a Cabinet minister is, apart from anything else,  excellent training for keeping your head while doing many things at the same time.  No doubt it is this skill that has enabled Martin Stanley to write a carefully constructed and readable book while pressing on with his current day job as Chief Executive of the postal service regulator.

How to be a Civil Servant is, he says, aimed primarily at those arriving in Whitehall for the first time and finding themselves perplexed by the mixture of rules, procedure and guidance.  Some of these are written, some not, some strictly enforced, some enforced less rigorously ... With an openness and generosity not always to be found in the civil service (or, toe fair, many other organisations0 Martin Stanley used to offer his own 'instant knowledge' notes to newcomers in his office and it is those notes that he has now expanded into book form.   Its strength and weakness both come, in part, from his hectic days in the DTI private office.  'Working with Ministers' is the first chapter in the book and by some way the most interesting, especially to those who have never worked inside a government department.  But Martin Stanley admits that hardly any of what he has to say will apply to the vast majority of civil servants who now work in agencies, local and regional offices [including in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland].

With that obvious reservation it would be hard to fault the brisk no-nonsense fashion with which the author tackles his subject:  '[civil servants] are not employed to "make policy" or "to manage"' he begins, sternly,  'We are employed to get things done on Ministers' behalf'.  His chapters are packed with nuggets of advice about how to set about this deceptively simple sounding task - and how to bear up when we fail:

  • If your advice is unwelcome or unexpected, do not expect it to be accepted straight away.  There is usually a moment to be seized, but you might have to wait for it.'
  • Ministers need to be told bad news .. serious problems .. as soon as you are aware of them,  They may not be very pleased, but they will be a lot less pleased if they first hear of a problem from someone else, or even worse from the press'.
  • 'it is worth remembering that Ministers who are constantly charming in public may sometimes be less than charming to their staff (and vice versa) .. we all have only a limited amount of charm to hand around'.

Martin Stanley writes frankly - and with surprising cheerfulness - about general matters of this kind, but he also deals with many of the nuts and bolts of the relationship between senior officials and ministers - how to provide draft letters that the harassed private office can actually use without extensive re-writing, how to arrange meetings, how to cosset your minister when he or she faces the rigours of Commons Question Time.

Perhaps the least satisfying sections of the book are those that deal with those management issues - 'Innovation', 'Personal Effectiveness'. 'Leadership' - that are not exclusive to the civil service.  Not that the author's experience, the advice he offers and the way in which he writes are in any way dubious, but the reader might find rather similar advice in other management texts.

By contrast, what the author writes about the Parliamentary process and the European Union (eleven pages of concentrated good advice) is precise, succinct and, surely, helpful not just to the new civil servant but to all those outside Whitehall, including students, who would like to know a bit more about how on earth departmental machinery creaks along.

Stanley admits, with an honesty that other authors might like to note, that a book of 140 odd pages cannot hope to get everything right.  And, as is always the way with studies of this kind, his book can only offer a picture of how things work at the time he wrote it.  Departmental structures are changing and [various pressures] all affect the way departments work.  Acknowledging this, the author had the bright idea of setting up a website ( on which errors can be corrected, significant changes and new information brought to light, and readers' views sought.

Full marks to the author for harnessing old and new technologies in this way, offering not only an enjoyable and thoughtful book, but also an open ended opportunity for readers to provide comments and suggestions for its enhancement.

Understanding the European Union

This booklet is essentially one chapter extracted from How to be a Civil Servant.  The above reviews contain these comments:- 

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