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.