How to talk mandarin (even if it is drivel)

Sir Peter Housden's blog attracts up to 16,000 views a week
Sir Peter Housden's blog attracts up to 16,000 views a week
Share this article
Have your say

WHEN Scotland’s top civil servant began writing a weekly blog for his staff it was no doubt seen as an attempt to move beyond the stuffy mandarin-speak typefied by the fictional Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes, Minister.

But following a release of his online musings, Permanent Secretary Sir Peter Housden yesterday stood accused of being less like Sir Humphrey and more like David Brent, the awkward boss played by Ricky Gervais in The Office.

Sir Peter’s weekly updates for the Scottish Government’s intranet site were revealed following a Freedom of Information request. The updates, which are available to 5,500 civil servants, detailed everything from house moves to yoga classes and visits to the opera.

The disclosure led to questions over Sir Peter’s suitability for his high-profile post, but the Scottish Government defended his actions, saying the blog gave staff “a window” into what the top mandarin was thinking.

Labour described the postings as “torrents of irrelevance”, saying Sir Peter, who was appointed in June 2010, was “rapidly becoming the David Brent of Scotland’s civil service”.

In one entry, Sir Peter wrote: “I did get some time to have a mooch up and down George Street and get into Harvey Nicks, ostensibly in search of a raincoat. I came home with a jumper and a shirt, but that’s shopping isn’t it?”

In another he chatted about visits to a yoga class while others include details of his house move, hobbies, favourite books and television shows.

Labour MSP Drew Smith said: “You have to wonder how much time has been wasted by civil servants to read this toe-curling drivel from Scotland’s highest-paid civil servant. You would expect Scotland’s top civil servant to have a bit of gravitas.”

The Scottish Government said the update was “not all serious” and was well-read, attracting up to 16,000 views each week.

Sir Peter’s updates first drew attention when opposition parties wrote to the UK’s most senior civil servant, Sir Gus O’Donnell, in September, calling his political impartiality into question after sections of the updates were made public.

In response, Sir Gus said Sir Peter’s remarks had not breached the Civil Service Code.

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said Sir Peter writes the updates in his own time. He said: “In his weekly column, the permanent secretary seeks to give staff a window into what he is thinking and doing at the top of the organisation.

“It is intended to engage and stimulate staff, and therefore it mixes the serious with the not-so-serious in order to show a human face.

“The majority of the content is focused on the hard work and commitment the permanent secretary encounters in the Scottish Government and the wider public sector, with a few personal musings thrown in for good measure.”

Donald MacKinnon, director of legal services at Law at Work, a leading employment law specialist, added: “It is difficult to see that the blog would breach any of the terms of Sir Peter’s employment or working practices.

“In the workplace, a good general rule of thumb is, if you would not be comfortable about copying your manager or directors in to an e-mail or a comment you are making, it is generally not a good idea to make the comment at work. In Sir Peter’s case, the rule of thumb would seem to be don’t blog about anything that you would not be happy being read by the media and wider world.”