Parrhesia and the ethics of public service – towards a genealogy of the bureaucrat as frank counsellor

  • Edward Barratt


Foucault makes clear in his later lectures that the notion of parrhesia has a long and varied history, which he merely sketches in his investigations of ancient politics and philosophy. Recent research extends and modifies Foucault’s genealogy of parrhesia as an aspect of the practice of the adviser or counsellor of a monarch or prince, showing how parrhesia informed notions of counsel at other times: in later antiquity, the middle ages as well as early modern Europe. Here we seek to show that the ancient notion of parrhesia reappears as a graft in another domain of modern truth telling: that of bureaucracy in Britain, in the debates over the organisation of the offices of government, with the middle years of the nineteenth century a decisive moment of rupture. We consider the fate of bureaucratic frank counsel in our own era. Interpreters of Foucault’s later lectures on governmentality have analysed the consequences of neoliberal rule for the government of public servants during the era of Margaret Thatcher. Presenting a reappraisal of the era, we show how important counter-discourses also emerged in this era, bringing the ethics of office to the fore, as civil servants argued for the formal codification of bureaucratic ethics, including frank counsel, as they tried to defend their professional ethics. Our discussion therefore addresses a key, early moment in the emergence of the ideal of codifying frank counsel and bureaucratic ethics. We consider the consequences of codification, arguing that a deep ambivalence now characterises the way in which political authorities seek to govern this domain of ethical practice.

Author Biography

Edward Barratt
Edward Barratt has written extensively about the later work of Michel Foucault in the field of organization and management studies. His current research interests concern the histories of management and ethical codification in the British Civil Service and the history of the concept of stake-holding, especially in the early years of ‘New Labour’ in Britain.


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