Attempt to Break Down Government

That’s funny. My title made you think I was going to tell you about all the subversive things I’ve done to make the government system inoperable…. well, sorta. I’m going to detail what I saw, at least in part, from my experience in the public service.

I’d like to provide some reflection on my seven years spent in the Saskatchewan Public Service. It was a period of tremendous growth and maturation for me. As the province’s largest employer, it represents the experience a lot of Saskatchewan people receive, or will receive, so here’s my take on what you’ll see.

There are two pretty distinct groups of people working in government. The distinguishing point, in my opinion, is how an individual interacts with the numerous boundaries the bureaucracy presents. Some people see these boundaries as porous and bendable, and others see them as air-tight and immovable.

There are written rules for when you’ll show up, when you’ll take a break, when you’ll get a performance review, how you’ll provide advice to decision-makers, how you’ll request bereavement leave… the list goes on. Then, there’s unwritten rules, like how you’ll dress, or what kind of message you’ll leave on your phone, what your out-of-office email message will say, where you’ll park your bike, there are even some unwritten rules for what are reasonable excuses for calling in sick.

The first, and most significant, choice government implicitly invites you to make is which group you’re going to be in. Most make a non-choice to follow the rules. However, now that you’ve read this far, you’re no longer eligible for the non-choice. You’ll have to choose. If you choose that government boundaries are rigid, congratulations. You’ve just gotten a job that will ensure you and your family are fed for the rest of your life. Mission accomplished.

That choice, however, requires you to accept assignments that appear pretty much meaningless, misguided and sometimes demeaning. If you’re OK with accepting that someone else knows better than you, even when you’re doing more thinking, researching or interacting on the topic, you’ll do fine with this.

My experience with government is that approximately 80% of employees choose to blindly follow the rules. It’s not that everybody starts this way, but they have to keep choosing, everyday, and government has a way of wearing you down until you accept the boundaries. Then you don’t have to choose anymore.

Even in this environment, 20% of individuals don’t accept the bureaucratic expectations. They choose to push, prod and break the boundaries. They work for change.

There’s different levels of investment to the work done on the 20%. Some work on the periphery, away from bread and butter issues. It’s a little more comfortable there. They can fight for changes to regulation 32 C of the Labour Standards Act, and feel proud that they fought the good fight… and no-one bit back.

Others try and strike right at the heart of the organization. They say, “12,000 public servants are working at half speed. We need to change the way we organize and engage employees.” It’s a herculean task given the amount of bureaucracy and control they’re confronting.

It’s in this environment that I worked for seven years, and it had three stages for me:

Stage 1 – Crash Course in Analysis

My amazingly brilliant supervisor demanded more and more from me during this time, and I wanted to get better. I got what I suspect was Masters-level training in creating concrete, credible and compelling solutions. It was a very beneficial relationship… for me, certainly, and I hope for my boss. That training is the foundation for the thought process I apply every day.

Stage 2 – My Attempt to Dent the System

My supervisor moved on, but the timing was impeccable. I was just starting to want to take on more ownership. Ownership not just for the work, but ownership for how I created my own brand and value in government. I challenged boundaries and had some success, primarily in helping others see their relationship with the boundaries. I also had failures. Lots of them. But they were mine, and I learned from them, so… success.

Stage 3 – My Burnout

I had built what I felt to be a healthy, productive little “shop,” an oasis in the bureaucracy, where people were responsible to be thoughtful and practice ingenuity. It was far from perfect. There was lots of growth left to pursue, but time ran out. New leadership brought new direction, and I found myself starting back near the beginning, so yeah, failure. I didn’t do what was necessary to lock in the changes I’d made.

I don’t know if you can “lock in” progress in government. (I don’t know if what I did was progress. If you like this blog, maybe it was.) I left the public service without knowing how to lock in what I’d done. I acknowledge this limitation. I think this was when I knew it was time to leave. I didn’t have the appetite to start again and rebuild what I believed in, and even if I did, I didn’t know how to sustain it when a more senior person’s philosophy didn’t jibe.

Here’s then, what government gave to me. If you’re a recent graduate or considering a career change, you can use this as a checklist to determine if government is right for you:

  • Significant investment in my ability to produce quality thinking and advice
  • Practice at managing and leading people
  • Practice at building a grassroots cultural change
  • A near-militant commitment to challenging status quo environments
  • Pessimism for the future of all governments
  • An innate sense of a bureaucrat’s motivations

I welcome your thoughts, especially if you’re a public servant in Saskatchewan or elsewhere. I tried to write this without pessimism, but I’m not sure it’s possible. Some other perspectives would help round it out.

I’m forever grateful for who I became through my public service experience, but mostly because of how it served as a motivation and a foil for me to grow up and away from it.

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Nevin

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  1. Miguel #
    1

    Great summary of your journey with the public service!

    You’re right that it’s almost impossible to lock in changes to government. The processes that feed the outcomes are so incredibly dynamic that you can’t really hope to either. There are too many players with influence and such regular change above you that it makes it difficult.

    I think the only permanent change you can make is with the people within the system. If you can make people challenge the rules, think outside the box and be truly motivated at work then you’ve made a change that will ripple throughout the system over time. In that sense, I think you did lock in some of the changes you were hoping for!

    I can definitely understand the pessimism for the future of all governments but I think there’s a lot of optimism too. Most of the people are in it for the right reasons (even if they eventually hit the burnout stage)and there is a lot of new faces from outside government (and from outside the influence of the last generation of public servants) taking on important roles ……which will probably end up being a good thing in the end!

    David Foot was right that we may all be about to ‘profit’ from the baby boomers moving on.

  2. Chris #
    2

    Hi Nevin,

    I’m very glad that you finally put pen to paper (or keyboard to blog) and wrote down your thoughts on this career experience that you invested seven years of your life in. I think that I may have asked you to write about this some time ago in my comments on one of your previous blog posts. It’s also good to see you back making contributions to Proceed Until Apprehended. You definitely must be busy!

    I think that you make some interesting points regarding the challenges of working in a public service environment. I have some experience with this myself but in a more competitive environment than the typical public servant works in. Government and public service definitely have some rules that differ from the private, profit-driven sector — for instance, political imperatives, election cycles, constituent sensitivities, etc… all have an impact. In a democratic system where policiticans and their ministers need to react to public opinion and wants, there are definitely lots of constantly changing pressures to deal with — all within a set of rules and with the ‘fifth estate’ constantly watching and digging.

    I find one quote from your blog entry really interesting:

    “There are written rules for when you’ll show up, when you’ll take a break, when you’ll get a performance review, how you’ll provide advice to decision-makers, how you’ll request bereavement leave… the list goes on. Then, there’s unwritten rules, like how you’ll dress, or what kind of message you’ll leave on your phone, what your out-of-office email message will say, where you’ll park your bike, there are even some unwritten rules for what are reasonable excuses for calling in sick.”

    The interest that I have in this assertion is that you characterize this as something seemingly peculiarly negative about governments and public service agencies. In my experience though, this is typical of any large bureaucracy whether it be a public or a private bureaucracy. I used to work for a couple of very large, multinational private, profit-driven enterprises supposedly ‘disciplined’ by the stock market. What is described above in your quote succinctly describes the operating environment of these organizations. So, I think that it is a bit unfair for you to criticize governments as having some sort of monopoly on this type of stifling, suffocating bureaucracy. Large private sector organizations are — at least in my experience — just as bad with respect to ‘numbing’ bureaucracy.

    Now, if you are comparing government AND large corporations with big bureaucracies to small, nimble, entrepreneurial businesses — perhaps a lot like the one that you currently work for — then I can definitely see your point. This is a different comparison though.

    In my mind, large organizations = bureaucracy. There are perhaps some exceptions but I kind of doubt it. As soon as you have a large bureaucracy, you have lots of rules, internal audit departments, securities regulatory issues, etc, etc, etc…

    For some personalities this doesn’t represent a problem. People with such personalities play the bureaucratic game and get along. For other peronality types (perhaps a lot like your own — I’d love to see your Myers-Briggs profile!), this type of operating environment represents nothing less than pure evil!! And I think that you’ve clearly expressed that here. It is defintitely a good thing that you got out and found a path more to your liking, passions, and motivations.

  3. Nevin #
    3

    Thanks Miguel and Chris,
    My MBTI is INTJ.

    I think I was hard on government more than I should be in two respects:
    1) There is a lot of promise in individuals that are aware of this very scenario but have the patience and willingness to address it. A willingness I lost and a patience I likely never had. A more sustainable, practical approach to improving government is conceivable with a new generation like Miguel describes.
    2) I applied some characteristics of big bureaucracies to government and perhaps sounded like they were the exclusive domain of public offices. They do apply almost universally to organizations that get to that size… though I love this Netflix presentation. (http://www.slideshare.net/reed2001/culture-1798664) In it, they say, “As we get bigger, we’re going to INCREASE freedoms.” Bureaucratic restrictions and size are definitely tied at the hip, but it doesn’t have to be a given… except perhaps in government.

    Thanks for reading!

  4. Chris #
    4

    Nevin – very interesting that you are an INTJ. I’m an INFJ so we are quite close in profile. Have you thought much about the implications (if you believe in Myers-Briggs) of your personality profile? I’ve been thinking a lot about mine lately (apparently the INFJ is exceedingly rare) and I don’t really know what to do. Long story….

  5. Nevin #
    5

    Hi Chris,
    Sorry for the delay on this. I’ve been especially negligent to PUA over the summer.
    I find MBTI to be fairly instructional and accurate for understanding myself. It’s a pretty good summary of how I approach problems, perceive situations and interact with others.
    Personality assessments like this are often in my mind when I’m asking how I should broaden my thinking and how to engage others in ideas or initiatives. With MBTI, I can be pretty sure:
    I – I’m not verbalizing early notions and engaging others enough. I’m likely formulating a plan without enough inclusion.
    N – I’m talking in the abstract. Some will want to see more practical next steps.
    T – I’m likely not thinking about the relationship implications. It would make sense to a Vulcan, sure, but what about Chris?
    J – I may be pushing for conclusion and a plan too quickly. Have I considered all options and perspectives?

    I don’t think MBTI has much to do with your fate. I’d rather look at a person’s emotional intelligence (which I see as very influence-able). In my opinion, EI is a more important baseline for figuring out where or how you can create value. After that, MBTI can be helpful to maximize your success.



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