For a lengthy period, all European societies believed that civil servants were linked to the authority of the state and could not be compared to employees in the private sector. This group of public employees were seen as agents intended to uphold the rule of law and to implement government policies. Consequently, civil servants had to have high standards of integrity and be entrusted with a single task: working for the common interest. In this conception, where the state was separated from society and citizens, it was inconceivable that civil servants should have the right to strike or the right to conclude collective working conditions agreements.
However, in the past years, many areas of the public sector have lost this uniqueness and have become quite similar to the general employment system. Does this mean that the idea of a civil service as a specific structure is outdated, at least in some countries?
Today, there are now as many different categories of public employees as there are different public functions and organisations, e.g. employees in a ministry differ from those in an agency, the police, the health service, border control, public-private partnerships, a school or a food inspectorate. Working conditions and working life have changed and – occasionally – differ from organisation to organisation. In some Member States senior civil servants differ very little from senior managers in private companies. Are these managers still different from those in the private sector?
Whatever the right answer is, one thing is sure: the term "civil servant" is more difficult to define than ever. He or she has very different tasks, positions, legal relationships and working conditions in the various Member States. The objective of this publication by Christoph Demmke is neither to defend a specific civil service model nor to abolish it. Instead, the interest in this study is to illustrate who these public employees actually are, how they perform and how they work. Naturally, another interest is also to examine the many existing clichés, images and perceptions about public servants (are they right or wrong?) and whether public servants differ at all from those working in the private sector. Do public employees, civil servants and private sector employees have a different work ethos and work motivation? Are they performing differently? Do they need different performance incentives? Are they more rule-oriented and job-security-minded?
These questions are of more than academic interest, they are in fact highly sensitive, political and more and more relevant. An increasing number of Member States find it increasingly difficult to argue why certain tasks should be given to civil servants, why civil servants should be treated differently to other employees and why civil servants should have working conditions different to those of other employees in the public or private sector.