When did the public service become an ignoble profession?

Friday, February 21, 2014
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

I first met Bob Chartier a few years ago in Calgary. We shared a stage at an event put on by the National Managers Community at the Fairmont hotel. I was the opening act, there to speak about how technology was changing government. He was the main attraction, there to speak about the important stuff: retaining our humanity, purposeful storytelling and the mental models that define us, yet we take for granted.

Bob walked the crowd through an exercise to illustrate how easily we become locked into particular mental models and how those models can be powerful forces that shape our world. He told a story about how when most people are asked to draw a skating rink, they draw the quintessential hockey rink.

Our mental models of skating are closely tied with the sport of hockey, he said. But when he asked the same question to a child, someone who had yet to internalize the predominant mental model of skating as a hockey rink, their answer was completely different. The rink was more like a park. Sure, there was space for hockey, but it was a part of a larger whole that included a number other elements like hills, trees, structures for play and long curvy trails between round frozen ponds. The differences were astounding.

Bob went on to speak about people's mental models of public servants: city workers leaning on their shovels, teachers on strike, and Ottawa fat cats entitled to their entitlements. The problem, Bob said, is akin to the problem of skating as hockey. Sure, that can stuff can happen, but it doesn't always happen. It's not an absolute truth so much as stereotype. And it is a dangerous one that has permeated public discourse; and in my view it's a mental model of the public service that does a disservice to public servants and the publics they serve.

When did the public service become an ignoble profession?

Feel free to levy all the standard criticisms, I'm used to them by now. I know it's cliché for a public servant to sit here and defend the public service to the publics they serve. Those who have tried tend to invoke an argument that public servants are a rich tapestry of teachers, nurses, emergency responders, planners, safety inspectors, and scientists and cannot be boiled down to the stereotypical paper pushing bureaucrat.

However, as compelling as that argument may (or may not) be, I think it misses the larger point. Namely, isn't it sad that defending the civil service to the citizenry that they serve has become cliché in the first place? That dragging civil servants through the mud (and the comment sections) has become commonplace?

What does it say about the future of the public service that this mental model has come to dominate public discourse about the civil service? Of the Canada it serves? When, why and how has it become acceptable?

Isn't that the question we ought to be exploring?

I certainly think so.


Bob Chartier is a public servant, an inspiration and a friend; he announced his retirement a few months ago, I wish him luck and I highly recommend reading his book, Letters to a Young Public Servant.