Public Service: The Long Game and the Dark Side

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

I’m optimistic. About the public service, its mission and work, and my role in it.

Teresa Amabile analysed journal entries for months from 238 employees in 7 countries, and determined that the singular difference between a good day and a bad day for a professional is whether or not they made progress on meaningful work. That’s it. Just that they got to do their job, and they felt that it meant something.

We can zoom out and look at Corporate Executive Board’s research on employee engagement. They didn’t get into journal entries, but surveyed 11,000 employees around the world and came to a similar conclusion: the number one driver of employee engagement is the sense of connection between what you’re doing and the organization’s mission.

And if I wanted to really hammer the point home, Gallup did a meta-analysis - an analysis of other analyses - of 1,390,941 employees. Same thing. Connection to mission comes out as the number one driver.

This kind of engagement is emotional. It’s something you feel, day to day.

Which is sometimes hard to reconcile with a mission of long-term stewardship.

In the public service jobs are, by their nature, part of a long-term mission. Political parties come and go and we stick with the ship of state. In Canada our senior civil servants are modelled after “Permanent Secretaries” in the UK, charged with making sure that departments function smoothly through political changes. The values and ethics code includes Stewardship and Respect for Democracy as pillars.

Although you’d be more likely to hear those pillars interpreted in the news as “risk-averse” or “slow-moving.” Thick skins required.

For individual public servants, this grandiose role of stewardship gets broken down, then broken down more, into day-to-day tasks. Sometimes this is exciting and engaging, and sometimes it is decidedly not. But it’s all a part of something bigger. Public service is about the long game.

When I first started in the public service, I admittedly wasn’t incredibly excited about my job, for the most part. I sat in my cube wondering if I could do this for the rest of my life. Eventually, I decided I’d stop worrying about it, and did the most bureaucratic thing possible to do so: I set an appointment in Outlook to worry about it later, on my three-year anniversary of public service employment.

This was a mistake.

As it turns out, the three-year mark is when you’re statistically likely to hit rock bottom for engagement in your career. For your first three years you’re full of enthusiasm, ideas, and idealism. But then you start running into obstacles, limits, and the realization that as a public servant you don’t get to do everything you want, or even all the things you think are in the public interest.

And to be honest, I was wrong a lot. Many of those obstacles are purposeful and useful, and they are, if nothing else, democratically legitimate. But it doesn’t mean it still doesn’t hurt a little when you run into them.

This is the dark side. You can rationally appreciate the long-term calling, but you still want the emotional day-to-day engagement.

So what happens to your level of engagement as time stretches towards the end of your career?

You start getting more responsibility, more control over outcomes, and more involved in the bigger mission of the organization. In fact, executives (in general, not necessarily government) tend to be the most satisfied with their jobs. I’ll stress tend - I have immense concern and sympathy for the all-too-real and prevalent mental health challenges for many over-taxed executives. The satisfaction is not universal, and the distribution is more interesting than the average. 

But for young public servants, that’s ages away. It’s hard to think about where you’ll be, and if you’ll be happy, 20 years from now. I mean, you should be happy now. 35 years of service would put my retirement date at May 5, 2044.

2044.

That is hecking terrifying. That is a date that only ever crosses my consciousness in science fiction. Even Star Wars happened before then.


Of course, it all depends on how we look at it.

Here’s some homework. Take out a sheet of paper and write the date ten years ago. November 30, 2006. And start making a list of everything you know how to do now, everything you understand, everything you’re good at, that you weren’t, then. That you’ve learned in the last decade.

It’ll be a long list.

Think about all those things, then start imagining what’s possible in the next ten years. The next 20. The next 30. That’s your horizon. Don’t worry about specifics, now, just the overall potential.

I, for one, am very excited about what is possible over this long horizon. The kinds of projects I’ll be able to contribute to, and the kinds of meaningful progress we’ll be able to make, individually and more importantly, together. I can look at that 2044 date and think “I’m going to get to work on so much amazing stuff by then.”

Listen to this man:


Jen Palhka, founder of Code for America and former White House Deputy CTO, said that to work in government you need to hold two contradictory thoughts in your head at once. “You need to love government, yet want to change it.“

The problem with thinking about change in fiscal years, or even three-year stretches, is that nothing happens. Ever. It’s like the turtle that keeps on getting halfway to the finish line, but never quite reaches it.

Even three years is too short for massive changes unless something breaks. Public servants are here to be stewards, the steady hand on the wheel, but that means the job is to keep things from breaking, not wait for turmoil to ensue when it does.

But the crazy thing is that they actually do happen. New Public Management actually happened. That’s a massive change. And now, of course, we have to un-change it, and that’s a nightmare. But it happened. The public service is capable of significant course changes.

Public servants don't get to scream what they think. But they're close to the fulcrum of the levers of change. When the lever moves, it can have a lot of impact for a lot of people.

Interpret that as both reward and duty.

At many points you will be the ones with the hard decisions. It’ll be up to you to think about stewardship and respect for democracy and to not say no because it’s easier than saying yes.

If you forget how important your job is, it will immediately become unimportant.

If you forget how much is possible, many things immediately become impossible.

If you ever say “it can’t be done”, or “there's no appetite for that,” you'll be right, because you just made it that way.

It’s about the long haul, not the quick wins. That’s the mission to connect to. When you feel like you’re missing that piece on any one day, remember the long game.