How Do We Stop Doing Work that Sucks … Money, Time and Energy?

In a context of ongoing austerity and increased public expectations around service delivery, governments the world over have embraced the principles of transformation.

What this effectively means differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but generally the following concepts are in play:

  1. An emphasis on innovation
  2. Streamlining, lean and red tape reduction
  3. Digital service enhancement and automation
  4. Metrics and measurement
  5. Divestment

As an analyst engaged in planning a Canadian national conference centered on public sector transformation, I have had the opportunity to engage with many other public servants and stakeholders and hear their ideas about many of these ideas in action. I have particularly been interested in the concept of divestment, which, in a public sector context, is often associated with privatization but which has applications beyond the divestiture of assets. In the conversations my colleagues and I have, divestment is about finding ways to shed work that sucks … money, time and energy.

Yet conversations about divestment or disinvestment in the public sector strike right to the heart of what we as public servants may fear about transformation: if the government (or any entity for which we work) stops doing something, and that something is the reason for our employment, what happens to us?

Even in a unionized environment, or one where the administration makes every effort to retain and rehome employees, fear runs rampant when the conversation turns to divestment. As one senior manager asked me recently, “Are we saying that out loud now?”

In the minds of staff, many aspects of transformation are associated with workforce restructuring and reductions – which are naturally anathema to the rank and file. It’s keeping transformation separate from these negative connotations that presents a unique challenge for public sector thought leaders.

The goal should be the establishment of a safe climate to cooperatively consider ways of doing things differently for the general betterment of all. True transformation (which means equal measures of stopping as starting) needs to be embedded in the organizational culture so it withstands administration change and also involves employees at all levels of the organization.

One truth can’t really be overstated: engaging public sector employees in divestment is critical, one of the most critical tasks public administrators face in transforming and innovating. Involving bureaucrats from the ground up in the process of identifying areas for divestment is one of the best ways to achieve their buy-in.

Much of my work for the past year has focused on ways to help colleagues consider what activities (of the innumerable ones they perform) actually add value to a process. Not only that, staff should be encouraged to consider whether tasks are commensurate with their skills and abilities. Management relies on open dialogue with staff to propel innovation forward, and administrations get their best information from their public servants.

The sort of organizational culture we need to truly transform the public service is one that accepts open discussion and experimentation – so we can determine what is truly worthy of doing.

Thanks to my colleagues Nikki Isaac and Rachel MacDonald for helping me to engage with divestment.

Opinions are my own and do not reflect employer or affiliated institutions.

Jessica Drakul is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. She currently works in a provincial government in Canada. She is the Chair of the Manitoba Institute of Public Administration of Canada (IPAC) Board and also Vice President of the IPAC National Board in her role as Chair of the IPAC National body of 19 regional groups (Regional Group Council).  Read her posts here

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Avatar photo Lisa Salinas

Truly an important goal of great government service is eliminating waste in all its forms. Certainly, talking of divestment in this manner can be scary for many because of the fear of unemployment, but you make a great case for why the discussion is important.

There is always more work to be done, so the fear employees have of not being needed should be somewhat easy to allay. It is up to each of us to stay relevant in a changing world, however. This is the same in both public sector and private.

Thank you for your brave and thought-provoking post!

Jessica Drakul

Thanks Lisa! It’s the same old conversation about being risk-averse and doing what we’ve always done – and trying to do things a different way in a rapidly changing context.