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Moving Public Service Mountains, Part II

Wednesday, May 29, 2013
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken


A couple weeks ago I wrote about an possible upcoming tectonic shift for the Canadian Public Service [see: Moving Public Service Mountains, Part I]. In the italicized intro, I noted that I'd expand on why I believe seizing opportunities to strengthen the public service is wildly important.

And I scratched the surface, getting into some less-than-rosy perspectives on public service careers and the relationship between public servants and the public they serve. But I left some loose ends to clean up.


Office Space



All large organizations have their issues. The deft skewering of cubicle culture in the movie Office Space needed no bureaucracy for inspiration. But, in the private sector, systemic issues mean that organizations eventually get supplanted by others, better run. On the other hand, in the public service things change slowly (try contrasting with this amazing visualization of the organizational changes at Autocad since 2007). The public service is actually too big to fail, and the absence of failure is not synonymous with success.


Too Big To Fail

The public service has to be good. An effective bureaucracy can create an economic competitive advantage for countries, and in aggregate, government has a dramatic impact on people's lives. Good policy helps people pursue their own well-being, and smooth functioning helps people when things unexpectedly go awry.

I was struck by this post on Govloop called Why in the World Am I Still in Gov't?, by Jeffrey Levy:
“So why am I here? I could've done lots of things that probably would've netted me more money. 
Ultimately, it comes down to this: I'm helping save the frickin' world. It's not so much about external validation, although that's very nice to have. In my first EPA job, the world-saving was a little more direct, as I worked to save the ozone layer. But even now, in communications, I help people understand why all of this matters and help inspire them to take care of the planet.”
Han would jump in and admonish us not to get delusions of grandeur, of course.


But consider this as an example, about the effects of the U.S. recession on the suicide rate:
“In a new book, we estimate that 4,750 “excess” suicides — that is, deaths above what pre-existing trends would predict — occurred from 2007 to 2010.”
That's from an op-ed titled How Austerity Kills. And while we could argue about their figures, the principle stands. Economic policy, such that a recession's effects are avoided or minimized, is crucial to people's lives. Yes, it must be weighed against such considerations as intergenerational fairness (we cannot saddle our children with debts) and environmental health (for many similar reasons). But that's why we need phenomenal analysts who we can trust to get that balance right.

On a one-to-one basis, it is hard to say what factors will greatly impact a particular person. But public policy is, on the whole, basically guaranteed to. Particularly for those 9% of Canadians, or over three million people, considered by Statistics Canada to be in the after-tax low income category. The delicate economic balance matters greatly.

And economics is just one example. I'm sure you all have case studies – or counterfactuals – from your own experience.


Why In The World?

I wrote an entire (and lengthy) post about why I'm a bureaucrat. It is likely never to be published, but here's the long story short:

I believe that the potential for public servants to have an impact on the lives of others is nearly unparalleled.

I can imagine the holes that could be poked in that statement. For it to be true, we need to consider an  investment horizon longer than our own careers [see: The Adjacent Possible in Where Good Ideas Go To Live And/Or Die]. We have to consider a multitude of possible relationships over that horizon between politicians, public servants, business, and citizens. We have to consider the roles that we play now, and imagine the roles that we will play at many different points in time.

And we need to be good.

We, writ large. So if there is the slightest crack in the door to help shape the future of the public service, we need to take it seriously.