Civil Service stereotype of pinstripe-suited mandarins persists, warns Aiken

The civil service is perceived by many as an old-fashioned, white, male, middle-class institution resistant to change, the government's comms chief has warned.

The Civil Service image of bowler-hat wearing mandarins persists, warns Alex Aiken (pic credit: Chris Brown)
The Civil Service image of bowler-hat wearing mandarins persists, warns Alex Aiken (pic credit: Chris Brown)

The stereotype of the "bowler-hatted, pinstripe-suited, furled-umbrella-wielding" Whitehall mandarins "is anachronistic to anyone working in the Civil Service," according to Alex Aiken, executive director, government communications.

"But it has had a frustratingly persistent hold on the public imagination," he admitted.

"It sums up the popular view of an organisation dominated by white males of a certain age and class, set in its ways and impervious to change, detached, convinced it knows best and closed to ideas from outside - and most of all from the people it’s supposed to serve."

Writing in Cabinet Office publication Civil Service Quarterly, released last week, Aiken described how the "generation-defining challenges" of Brexit and the Government’s austerity drive make it vital that the civil service strive to keep improving.

He remarked: "The Civil Service hasn’t always been brilliant at this kind of change."

In contrast, the private sector "has tended to be much more focused on what its customers want. It has been quicker to adopt new technologies and working culture to meet their needs."

Aiken commented that while the civil service should be proud of its "public service ethos" and the positive difference it can make to people’s lives, "it can’t neglect the skills and practice that increase that potential."

Writing to mark the tenth anniversary of Civil Service Live – an annual series of events focussed on learning and development – Aiken said: "The Civil Service has not just to respond to change, but to anticipate it. It has to take into account developments in society, in technology and science, in working practices, to equip its workforce with the right outlook, as well as the right skills to do its job."

He added: "This ability to transform through learning from external developments and to foster innovation in its own ranks has never been more relevant to the Civil Service than now."


Click here to subscribe to the FREE public sector bulletin to receive dedicated public sector news, features and comment straight to your inbox.

If you wish to submit a news, comment, case study or analysis idea for the new public sector bulletin, please email

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in