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Richard Chapman: Scholar of public administration and authority on decision-making

Richard Chapman was a professor and scholar of public administration whose particular interest was decision-making and leadership in public life. His book on Sir Edward Bridges, a one-time head of the civil service – Ethics in the British Civil Service (1988) – was a tour de force that combined a biographical approach with a keen analysis of the way in which a top civil servant influenced and shaped public policy. Through his examination of the career of Lord Bridges, he raised important questions about the application of moral standards in official work, looking at how top appointments are made, the political attitudes and behaviour of civil servants, and the machinery of government and open government. In his teaching career, RAC – as he was known to his students – had a direct manner which could be startling for undergraduates, but he was very dedicated, skilled at persuading without applying too much pressure and always ready to invest time and patience in his teaching and mentoring role.

Richard Arnold Chapman, an only child, was born in Bexleyheath in 1937. His father worked for the Post Office until war took him away, and Richard was brought up by his mother and an aunt. He had an unremarkable school career, failing his 11-plus, before passing the 13-plus and being admitted to Dartford Grammar School. On leaving school he joined the Civil Service in the clerical grade.

But Chapman was ambitious – by passing the necessary exams, he moved up into the executive class, then and now the backbone of the civil service. His time in the public service, and later in the RAF doing national service, was influential in a number of ways. First and foremost it convinced him that the good society depended upon a core of publicly minded men and women dedicated to pursuing the public interest; his military service on the other hand confirmed his Quaker's dislike of war and all things connected with deadly combat.

In 1958 Chapman went to Leicester University to study politics. He took his BA and PhD there, interrupted by a spell in Carleton University in Canada, where he joined the politics department headed by Bruce Miller. In 1963 he moved, as Leverhulme Fellow in Public Administration, to the University of Liverpool, joining a politics department under Professor Wilfred Harrison, who was impressed and befriended his youngest staff member.

This was the time of the Fulton Report, the most influential inquiry into the civil service since Northcote Trevelyan put recruitment to the upper reaches of the service on the basis of merit rather than family connection. At the time of Fulton, Professor Lord Simey taught at Liverpool and through that connection Chapman, still in the early stage of his academic career, was invited to assist in preparing evidence for that wide-ranging inquiry in due course accepted by the Labour government. The Fulton Report suggested the need for a more specialised service – both in the sense of training in administration and in "technical" skills being needed (economics, finance, business administration etc) by top civil servants – and its conclusions led to the creation of a modern, more technocratic service.

From Liverpool Chapman moved to Birmingham where, at the Institute of Local Government, he pursued his interest in the politics of developing countries, inviting many distinguished academics and public servants to the Institute and himself doing numerous tours abroad. His acolytes, instilled with his belief in the virtues of a disinterested public service, could be found as far afield as Brazil and the Far East.

In 1971 Chapman was appointed Reader in Politics at Durham University, where he stayed for the rest of his career and where he was awarded a personal chair in 1986. His seminars on public administration took place for 25 years on Friday afternoons. When news came of his imminent appointment to a chair, students held up his progress to the lecture hall in order to rush out to buy celebratory champagne. The seminar eventually went ahead, but with a lighter feel to it.

Chapman wrote voluminously, publishing books, articles and reviews as well as attending conferences where he gave papers. In his inaugural lecture as Professor of Politics at Durham in 1986, Chapman chose a theme from Jean Jacques Rousseau – the "art of darkness" – as his title. The lecture boldly illustrates his adherence to the school of TH Green and the English neo-Hegelian idealists, who insisted that at the centre of the political quest had to be a pursuit of the good life. For Green the fashionable utilitarianism of his day was not enough for that purpose; for Chapman, equating politics with a successful manipulation of the economy, the great vogue of the Thatcher years, equally fell short of the mark.

For many years Chapman and his partner, Barry O'Toole. visited remote Greek islands at the height of the southern summer. Chapman relaxed wearing a wide straw hat in the shade with a heavy tome on his lap; it was serious recreation but that was a reflection of the man and his belief in inner conviction and purpose.

Richard Arnold Chapman, scholar of politics and public administration: born London 15 August 1937; assistant lecturer, Leicester University 1962-63; Leverhulme lecturer, Liverpool University 1963-68; senior lecturer, Birmingham University 1968-71; Reader 1971-86 Durham University, 1986-96 Professor; died Durham 15 April 2011.