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The Public Service – An Exclusive and Secretive Group

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Scott McNaughton

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If you haven’t read about it or heard about it yet, Nathan Jurgenson offers harsh criticism against the “TED” talks. What are TED talks? TED talks started as a one-off conference nearly 30 years ago. Since then, it has grown into two large annual events and several smaller regional TEDx events that are independently organized. Jurgenson argues that TED Talks have become the “Urban Outfitters of the ideas world”. He argued the highly popular conference on technology, entertainment and design is becoming dominated by Silicon Valley business types, and is increasingly out of touch with important social issues. He also argues the need to get ideas from the fringes essentially from outside the existing structure to infuse new ideas and spark true innovation. My favorite quote from the post:

Each new “big idea” to “inspire the world” and “change everything” pitched from the TED stage reminds me of the swamp root and snake oil liniment being sold from a wagon a hundred years past.

So how does the criticism of TED relate to the public service? Much like TED, the public service is facing very similar challenges. The public service is an exclusive organization that is shrouded in intrigue and mystery to those who are not on the inside and already working in the public service (and even then we don’t understand all our own rules). Many people outside the public service do not understand how the public service works, what work we do and how dedicated public servants are to their jobs. Private sector companies time and time again, open their doors to the general public and offer a glimpse of what they do, how they contribute to the world and how happy their workers are as a result. The federal public service does make an attempt to show the public service as an attractive career but the effort falls short as it simply offers 5 text based reasons and lacks the bells and whistles you often see with private sector offerings.

So why is important that we aren’t doing such a great job showing the world why the public sector is the career for them? Our failure to reach out to the public is stifling creativity and innovation. We are not attracting nor are we hiring enough people from the fringes, people whose life experiences are not shaped by Ottawa or by Canadian culture. These people would bring unique and non-Canadian ways of doing business and spark the cultural change the public service needs to support true innovation. We aren’t attracting nor are we hiring those from the private sector who might bring different ways of doing business that can have success both in the private and public sectors. We aren’t attracting nor are we hiring recent graduates from school who are often more in touch with current social trends and current ways of thinking than we as public servants could ever hope to be. For the lucky few who get through the red tape and/or figure out the staffing system and get hired, we often overpower their enthusiasm, creativity and innovation by showing them a public service culture that leans towards being risk adverse and “business as usual”.

So what do we do to solve this problem especially in light of looming job cuts in the federal public service? If an infusion of new talent is not possible, we look to people who move around the public service from Department to Department. We look to those who often change Departments as a source of innovation, creativity and new ways of thinking. After all, these people are shaped by the experiences and knowledge they’ve acquired from their previous Departments. New arrivals from other Departments offer a fresh set of eyes, and bring a wealth of experience from their other organizations that can offer not only new ideas but ideas that meet the existing culture half way.

For many public servants, seeking a job in the bureaucracy was natural because we live in Ottawa, the home of the federal government. A culture change is within grasp but it will take more than a small group of public servants. It will take a fresh infusion of public servants (whether from the outside or from those who move within). We are creating an environment where ideas are often amount to nothing more than just ideas, where conformity is valued above creativity and most importantly we are not sparking the cultural change needed to innovate through the infusion of new perspectives and viewpoints. If we aren’t careful, we will be just like TED, we will become an exclusive and closed group that does not welcome new ideas and who knows maybe our new nickname will be the “Urban Outfitters of the public service world”.

Scott McNaughton, thenewbureaucracy.ca

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David Dejewski

Scott – there are a buffet of ideas here. Any one of which worth digging into. Control of ideas and creativity, marketing and communication challenges, individual expression in a bureaucracy, the aging of public service and succession plans, culture influence, change management… Your post is sure to bring out interest from at least one or more of these interest groups.

In which direction do you think solutions lie?

What is one thing we might do at the grass roots level to improve things?

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steve davies

Hi Scott

An excellent piece of writing and I agree 100%. Despite some off the good ‘projects’ going on here in Australia the short is far from fundamental and there is certainly resistance to new ideas – especially if they challenge the status quo. I wrong this piece on OZloop a little while ago. It might add something to your thinking.

Cheers – Steve

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Scott McNaughton

Hi David,

Thank you for your comment. I don’t want to dictate to people what the “right fit” will be for their organization. At a grass roots level, the best thing you can do is take action. Don’t accept things because “that’s how we’ve always done business”. Find a solution that works for your organization and do what you need to do to make it happen.

Many people are “ideas” people. They can come up with great ideas but the ideas rarely materialize into action. My ideas are yes just ideas. My call to action though is a challenge to all public servants to be the beginning of a grass roots movement to truly bring in cultural change. Take the ideas I’ve discussed and make them work for where you work.

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Scott McNaughton

Hi Steve,

Thank you for the comment. I’ll be sure to check out your post and leave a comment. Like I’ve argued, the public service does have the capability of changing but often we find ourselves in the ideas trap. We often come up with wonderful ideas and blogs like this are a great place for discussion but how often can we say we’ve taken tangible real action to change the culture.

For example, the stuff I post on my blog is not simply a soap box to discuss ideas. Everything I talk about, I act upon in someway in my own office. Yes, my ideas sometimes don’t move far but sometimes I win and sometimes I do my small part in changing the public service. If everyone did the same thing, we could begin a real grassroots movement one idea at a time to change the public service.

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