Keeping Yourself Honest Redux

Wednesday, May 7, 2014
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Last week, Nick wrote about how presenting the Scheming Virtuously playbook keeps him honest (see: Keeping Yourself Honest). I read that line and immediately thought back to a conversation I had last year in which someone on the periphery of government asked me why I was a public servant.

I started on the answer a few months ago (see: Why I'm a Renewal Wonk), saying that the Public Service has to be good. Regardless of the long-term future - various people have predicted a smaller bureaucracy, increasingly outsourced policy advice, or increased societal capacity for problem-solving - the Public Service is, and will be for the foreseeable future, an incredibly important institution. And the better that institution is, the better life is for Canadians and stakeholders (for what I consider the starkest example of this, see Moving Public Service Mountains, Part II).

Monday was my five year anniversary in the Public Service. It's reasonably likely that the next five years of my career will have a greater impact than my first five, purely out of the learning curve and the increased responsibility that comes with experience. And it's reasonably likely that the last five years of my career, many years from now, will have more impact still. The challenge, as I said in the aforementioned conversation, is to keep yourself honest all the way throughout.

Over the course of our lives there will be positions we should abandon when faced with new evidence. I certainly wouldn't keep myself honest to some the ideals of twenty-year old Kent. This is a deeply personal debate we'll all have, over and over, with ourselves.

Writer Jon Lovett beautifully captured the tension between good ideas and the wisdom of experience in a Pitzer College commencement speech that Nick once posted:

"...There is a lot that you don't know that you don't know... There are moments when you'll have a different point of view because you're a fresh set of eyes, because you don't care how it's been done before, because you're sharp and creative, because there is another way, a better way. But there will also be moments when you have a different point of view because you're wrong... 
..[And] sometimes you're going to be inexperienced, naïve, untested and totally right."

But that divide is also going to happen internally, within each of us.

I agree with Nick; the paper trail of ideas and positions does indeed keep me honest (in particular, the tension between designing ideas for my environment and designing ideas for what my environment should be seems to show up daily (see: When Parameters are the Problem)). When asked, however, the answer I pointed to was the people I surround myself with. The humblingly* dedicated colleagues, the people who go to great lengths to demonstrate that they care about their government, and the people I get to share ideas with.

Which is, really, the same answer as Nick, I think. The key is whom we "share ideas with", and who shares ideas with us

*I know, Tariq, it's not a word.