Best books about government?
September 6, 2016 1:02 AM   Subscribe

I am compiling a reading list - already pretty long - of "must reads" around the subject of government (Westminster-style) and the civil/public service. Your recommendations?

I have Fukuyama on there, naturally, and my list grows seemingly daily, but most trails I follow on e.g. Amazon end up taking me to books on politicians, who I'm not particularly interested in beyond Paul Keating and his bon mots.

My preference is for books specifically to do English/Australian government, simply for immersive learning purposes, but I'm open to anything. I'm particularly interested in books on the public/civil service at any level.

Thanks in advance!
posted by turbid dahlia to Law & Government (9 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You should consider the diaries of Jim Hacker, basically the written up scripts of the TV shows Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister. Good for light relief but also with a certain perspective on how government and civil service interacts.
posted by biffa at 1:18 AM on September 6, 2016

Peter Hennessy's Whitehall and basically everything by him
posted by crocomancer at 1:39 AM on September 6, 2016

For a different perspective, you might like to read about the legacies of Westminster for ex-British colonies - the 'Eastminsters', so to speak.
posted by idlethink at 2:06 AM on September 6, 2016

No, Minister by Alan Behm is about being a Chief of Staff in the Australian Parliament. Mark Madden's Generals, Troops and Diplomats is a how-to guide for ministerial staff (and ministers). Both Alan and Mark were chiefs of staff for Gillard Government ministers.

Anne Tiernan's Learning to be a Minister: Heroic Expectations, Practical Realities is pretty good on the roles and limitations of Ministers (she is also one of Australia's foremost scholars on the pubic service, so also check out her articles in the Griffith Review).

The Australian Policy Handbook by Glynn Davis is a classic text on how policy-making works.

Good and Bad Power: The Ideals and Betrayals of Government by Geoff Mulgan is also good.

I'm currently reading Michael Barber's How to Run A Government so that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don't Go Crazy, which is mainly abut the challenges of delivering in government. Fair warning, parts of it worship at the altar of Tony Blair.

Tim Rowse's book on Nugget Coombs is good for the modern history of westminster government and public service in Australia, as is The Seven Dwarves and the Age of the Mandarins.

Laura Tingle's most recent Quarterly Essay: Political Amnesia is also useful, though a little utopian.

You should also check out the London School of Economics' excellent British Government Research Program for lots of articles and books about government in the westminster tradition.

You can also try The Mandarin, a daily email that covers public service issues, and the Canberra Times' Public Service Informant.

(Why yes I am a public servant who is very nerdy and passionate about the art of being a good public servant, what of it?)
posted by girlgenius at 3:14 AM on September 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

girlgenius, you're a public servant after my own heart. I finished Barber's book last was good in places but could have used a bit of trimming, and read a bit like a response to selection criteria, with only about three examples of actually successful projects and a bunch of fluff around it. Still, I picked up some useful and interesting ideas from it, and it will be a handy reference in the future.

I'm also subbed to The Mandarin and a few other places ( is a great resource, fyi) for my dailies. I'm trying to drive a bit of behavioural economics and systems thinking into our (rubbish) division while I apply for jobs in other departments, and basically want to equip myself as well as possible to bulldoze through the moans of complaint from all the longsocks and coffin-dodgers who don't like to see things actually getting done between MoGs.

Your other suggestions are excellent and I will investigate them forthwith! I'm working my way through a pile of (hopefully) pretty good stuff at the moment (finishing Inside the Nudge Unit tonight) and am happy to trade recommends with you via MeMail if you're interested :-)
posted by turbid dahlia at 4:43 AM on September 6, 2016

biffa, great suggestion! I did read the complete scripts for Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister a while back, more for entertainment and scriptwriting insight than anything, but now you've reminded me I'll go back and pick them up again, as they were quite brilliant.

crocomancer, Whitehall sounds good...hopefully I will be able to track a copy down locally. idlethink, the Kumarasingham volume sounds quite daunting, but the "Eastminsters" lead is an intriguing one I will certainly pursue.
posted by turbid dahlia at 4:47 AM on September 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do And Why They Do It, by James Q. Wilson is a classic, although the case studies are American, and it's a bit dated (1989).
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 5:53 AM on September 6, 2016

The book by James Button, as Rudd's speechwriter, is worth reading (title currently escapes me). Patrick Weller had written some good books, including Don't Tell the Prime Minister. Here's his bibliography.
posted by wilful at 6:09 AM on September 6, 2016

Per Yes Minister, a colleague of mine reckoned that the scripts had one of the earliest references to an integrated transport policy in the public domain in the UK.
posted by biffa at 8:25 AM on September 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

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