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How do public servants “get in the system”?

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Disclaimer: The story told here is purely fictional and used to illustrate my opinion, it is not a relation of personal experience but rather an observation I have heard from other public servants.

What do I mean when I ask, “how do public servants get in the system”? I’m sure we are all familiar with the feeling of day 1 on the new job. We are very excited to get started, we are enthusiastic, peppy and eager. During orientation, while being introduced to your colleagues, you begin to realize the hard work in front of you but think that you are up to the challenge.

After the initial introductions, we are sitting at our cubicle wrapping our heads around all the new knowledge we are expected to absorb. The atmosphere can be a little dull since it’s cubicles but we’re going to make it work. As we read our orientation documents and program documents we begin to envision ways we can introduce new ideas, change the way business is done and be more efficient.

New public servants represent a unique breed of worker for the public service. They see the business of the public service from perspectives that are outside the organization, from experiences encountered in the private sector or from post secondary education. They do not come in with assumptions about how business is done or what the proper “process” has to be. The new public servant offers fresh views on problems/issues, offers new ways of doing business and most importantly offers innovative ideas to a public service that needs to evolve to meet the needs of the 21st century Canadian citizen. They are an asset to the public service but despite good intentions from managers they encounter a system that is often about dotting your “i”s and crossing your “t”s. This is not a fault of any individual public servant but rather a systematic failure.

Back to the public servant. They start to observe the culture of their office, they observe the way other people act in the office, the way their colleagues are working and the process and tools of the public service. In a well intentioned effort to fit in, the public servant begins to integrate into the system and act like their colleagues. The public servant begins the process of entering the system. They stop questioning, they stop thinking outside the box and they begin to accept what is. After all that seems to be the way the system works. When they suggest different ways of doing things, when they think outside the box, they are met with indifference or at worst they are wrist slapped. The experience has taught our young public servant a lesson: to be tread carefully through the minefield.

I recently spoke to several experienced public servants; some of whom I hope to have guest blog in the near future who offer advice for our young public servant who was just hired or is considering a career in the public service: despite the indifference, the barriers you will face or the wrist slapping you get for doing things differently don’t give up on your ideas. If there is one thing to pass onto young public servants it is to be patient, earn respect by doing a good job at the job you were hired for, push innovation constantly in the organization but in a way that respects the established culture of the public service. You will be successful but you are up against a bureaucracy that is cautious and careful.

Innovation itself is not being punished. Young public servants should heed the advice given by older public servants. Respect those public servants who know more than you and learn from them. Craft ideas that are from the fringes. Don’t expect people to be happy or accepting but never let that innovation fire die out. Always remember that you can make a difference and make a better public service. Get involved in Young Professionals Networks, use social media to find events connecting public servants and most importantly let people know what you think. Otherwise, you’ll just become another public servant in the system.

Scott McNaughton, Originally published on http://thenewbureaucracy.ca


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Profile Photo Tricia John

Great Post! I would like to add, that when you are getting to learn and understand your colleagues if you are a highly motivated person and have an instinctive drive and desire to excel, do not allow any negative energy in your space. There are several great thinkers and personalities driven to work hard and excel and there may be naysayers doubting your efforts, do not let them take away your positive drive and gusto 🙂

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Profile Photo Scott McNaughton

I agree fully Tricia, you have to keep things positive. “Don’t let the haters hate”.

I also feel that people need to choose a public service career for the right reasons. Pay, benefits and job security are nice motivators but they should not be the main reason you join the public service. One way I stay motivated is my strong desire to make the world a better place, make better public policy and deliver better services to citizens.

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