Friday, September 23, 2011

The Rise and Fall of Public Sector Youth Groups

I've spent a lot of time around departmental youth groups since joining the public service; I've launched them, provided informal advice to chairs, and spoken at national conferences. My general observation is that public sector youth groups are forged out of a deep sense of frustration that plagues many new public servants. It is a frustration born out of over-promising during intake, under-delivering after the hire is made, and otherwise muddling through the logistical details of the on-boarding process (e.g. office space, ID badge, computer login credentials that often aren't ready; managers with no time or materials to brief you with; and no clear articulation of duties in relation to mandate). Back in 2008, I interviewed a new hire who put it thusly:
"Despite coming in really pumped from the recruitment process, the first week on the job was very slow. My manager was away and the rest of the team generally kept to themselves. I spent the first week eating lunch alone."
To be fair, I doubt everyone's experience is terrible, however I would say that my own initial experience and many of the stories others have shared with me of theirs confirms the sentiment of the text cited above. In fact, one could argue that the trajectory of new public servants is not too dissimilar from the 5 stages of grief:

  1. Denial: This can't actually be this bad, people wouldn't just sit back and let themselves be treated like this. 
  2. Anger: This is bullshit; management needs to get their heads out of their arses and fix this. 
  3. Bargaining: Maybe if I give it a year it will get better. Everything moves slowly here, I'll just give it a year. 
  4. Depression: The organization is so broken. Change is hopeless. I'll just self-medicate with coffee and cigarettes.
  5. Acceptance: (a) Retire on the job or (b) Quit or (c) Fight the good fight.

Enter Public Sector Youth Groups

Public sector youth groups are likely to form when you have recruitment efforts that result in large numbers of new recruits entering the organization at the same time because they generally proceed through these stages together. When everything is unfamiliar to them, they tend to coalesce with other new employees because they share a common experience: their relative newness to the organization. My sense is that most youth groups are the formal end point of what starts out as an informal assembly of new friends and colleagues sharing shit stories over beers about how they perceive themselves to be (rightly or wrongly) under-appreciated, under-utilized and over-managed. Yet, if it is empirically true that youth groups form out of a common sense of dissatisfaction or unrest, then their very existence can be construed as evidence that there is something inherently wrong with the organization.

My observation is that as new recruits proceed through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, they build affinity for one another and the group increases in size. Upon reaching the 5th stage (acceptance) the group starts to move towards collective action (provided they decided to fight the good fight). These actions usually start around the periphery of the organization, and focus in on activities that senior managers wouldn't blink an eye at (social events, lunch and learns, charity events, etc). These activities do a couple of things for new hires: First it gets them out of their cubicles and allows them to meet other people all over the organization; and second, it provides them with unique opportunities to showcase their talents outside those cubicles. In short, participation in youth groups brings exposure, and exposure brings opportunities.

Moreover, many of the youth group coordinators I have spoken to over the years have expressed a deep disdain for doing the actual work within the youth group, but see that work as a means to an end. They see it as the stepping stone to get away from the work at the core of their desk, work they often have an even deeper disdain for. What happens next is what we usually call serendipity, but given the circumstances, is the logical climax of the story line: the on-display abilities of new recruits are noticed, and subsequently they move on to higher-profile jobs. This movement has two related impacts. The first is that these now not-so-new hires are less dissatisfied with the overall status quo because their own lot has ameliorated (i.e. they have been satiated for the time being). The second is that they now have additional responsibilities so they have less time to invest in the youth group and related activities. In short, their interest in and ability to participate are lessened. This is how most youth groups disband, the majority of the drivers move onto bigger and better things and the group loses its critical mass until the next batch of new recruits is hired and inevitably stumbles upon the novel idea of forming a youth group, allowing the cycle to simply repeat itself.

To be honest I don't have a lofty conclusion, I just thought this was an observation worth sharing.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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