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I would’ve eaten glass to get this job

Moving to the bureaucracy from the world of NGOs, for me, meant serious growing pains.

I really, really wanted a job in the public service. I would have eaten glass in sharp, jagged pieces to make my casual position a permanent job — if my manager would’ve asked. I did whatever I was told, even if it seemed like nonsense or a time-waster. I had 90 days to prove I could fit in with the best of them, so I never wanted to rock the boat, in case the door closed on my one foot holding it open.

I know that there are a lot of other people that want a job in the public service, but settle for contract work. In fact, over $1 billion a year is spent on contracts. It’s been called a “shadow public service” – the vast, growing reserve of temporary help. I’m sure that given the choice, any of these contractors would prefer to work with government, rather than alongside it.

It’s only natural; it’s a good job. I get paid well. I get to think about issues of national importance, and I don’t have to worry every single day about the next contract or assignment. And more people want it than can possibly have it.

Maybe you’d be inclined to argue that it’s this hunger that drives innovation. I’d say you should watch this awesome little video by Dan Pink. Hunger and innovation do not go hand-in-hand.

When you join any group, there’s a period of socialization; the public service is no different. I had to learn “the ways.” But the way I see it, this process of socialization is the very place where public service renewal needs to begin. Being on contract essentially silences you because you want that contract to be renewed — and this is the starting point for a good number of public servants, who then carry this attitude throughout their careers.

The impact of this is insidious. Besides the silencing, it leaves behind a legacy of contradictions:

  • We are constantly in competition for jobs, but supposed to work as a team
  • Many are ‘advisors’ who don’t actually provide advice, but instead perform highly administrative tasks
  • Our system for hiring is supposed to be transparent and fair, but to who? Job applications seem to end up in a black hole. (I applied for over 30 jobs in the PS and I never got called for one of them, until, of course, I had public service experience. Which I could only get by becoming — you guessed it — a contractor)

There are some shops in my department that are run completely through the use of contractors. They get the job done, sure. But we need a public service that does more than uphold the status quo.

It’s frustrating and enough to make one depressed, and depressed we are — we have 11,100 public servants collecting disability benefits right now. And headlines have been popping up aplenty in recent years that depression among Canada’s public servants is the country’s biggest public health crisis.

To various degrees, we all behave in a way that we perceive to be expected of us. That happens in all sectors, and it’s useful sometimes, too. But my point is that we will continue to pursue public service renewal at only the surface level as long as we continue to perpetuate this cycle of “insiders” and “outsiders.”

As long as there are people who are willing to eat glass to get in, there will be a culture that lacks innovation. They will do what they are told, rather than trying to come up with innovative ideas. We must pursue this type of cultural change to get at the heart of renewal.

We need strong, rational leadership that charts an unwavering course forward. We need to think collectively instead of in silos and tribes. We need to make changes in our HR processes; we need to find a way to promote teamwork, downplay hierarchy, and make the #GoC one big team.

Now that’d be really worth eating glass over.

(This post was also published on cpsrenewal.ca. Thanks to Nick Charney)

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Andrew Krzmarzick

I can see the interview now: candidate arrives and the HR person asks, “Can I offer you a glass of glass?” Those who turn it down are shown the door… 🙂

Seriously, how do you measure that passion in an interview…and how do you conjure it after being hired?

Cindy L May

One problem is, once you’re in, it would take several acts of Congress to make you ever have to eat glass again. That tends to lead to complacency. I agree that strong, inspirational leadership is key. As I saw in another post, every worker has to have a reason WHY they are doing the job they have — service.

It’s also sad that it took a huge economic downturn to help us get over our inferiority complex regarding the previously higher paying and more “exciting” jobs available in the public sector. I thank my lucky stars every day that I became a civil servant all those (25 or so) years ago!