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Why Worry About Ideology?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Last week Nick declared his public service ideology, his cards on the table.

I've been thinking about ideology since Tariq wrote that we all have one, and I had planned to write out mine upon reading Nick's piece. But it's a delicate question of wording, and something that, if done, I want to do right. I want to make sure that it's not influenced by the issues of the day, including the deserved attention that the public service is getting recently (see: the list at the start of My Public Service Ideology).

(It's also worth considering the comments on that post, including Andrew's comment noting the blurry line between values and ideology. I'll stick with the term for now.)

It's particularly tricky where my ideology seems imperfectly aligned with commonly held principles about the Canadian public service. When this happens, there are several possibilities:

  • My ideology should evolve
  • My understanding of the principles is incomplete
  • The principles need to evolve
  • The common interpretation of the principles is misguided

Occam's Razor - the most obvious answer - would be that I need to either evolve my thinking or learn more. Also plausible is that the common application of the principles is misguided - recently I suggested that the phrase fearless advice, loyal implementation was a slight but profound tweak on the intended idea, propagated through repetition. The least likely answer is that the principles that have been written into law and carried our democracy this far need to evolve.

(That said - unlikely, but not impossible. Much has changed since those principles were established, and we've realized that things are often more complex than they seem.)

Almost a year ago our public administration book club read The Ethics of Dissent, which walks through case studies of public servants exiting official channels - to achieve a goal or to whistleblow. Abandoning, temporarily, loyal implementation. It's fascinating food for thought. But the most amazing thing to me was our discussion about the book - the nature of our own Values and Ethics Code was an hour-long debate, even among people who take time to understand it. But V&E is neither simple nor always easy to apply to our day-to-day experiences. So, my takeaway was that these issues merit more discussion.

For instance, the idea of public service anonymity hasn't been thoroughly revisited since 1996, when the internet looked like this:



Yes, that's GeoCities. Yes, I had one.

Alternatively, recently an executive put the question to a group of us: "What's the Public Service mission?" We've gone from the days of Supply and Services Canada to Public-Private Partnerships and Alternative Forms of Delivery. Has the mission changed?

Which leads to an assumption I'm making that begins to reveal my ideology. I frequently question whether my approach to public service is appropriate. That is, questioning everything and trying to understand the system in which I work. The alternative being functional stupidity, which is an unnecessarily harsh term for a reasonable approach: marginalizing doubt and communication, worrying instead about carrying out whichever tasks you've been given.

However, I don't think that's the correct approach. So I agree with Nick, where he believes in a public service that trusts its people, that is deeply connected to its sense of purpose, and where pride in one's work is the rule, rather than the exception. In short, a public service in which public servants ask higher order questions about what they're doing and why. That is, they feel that they can ask those questions, and they do.

So, to start I had to ask myself the question of why I worry about public service ideology at all, whether it should be left to others, and whether it's an appropriate discussion to try to advance. And here, once again I agree with Nick:

"I believe that public service is at the same time personally rewarding, professionally meaningful, and vitally important to the health of the nation."

Particularly the last clause (see: here, there, everywhere). And I think it's in asking these kinds of questions that we understand and maximize our contributions and their meaning.