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In Defence of the Government Extracurricular

For many provincial and municipal governments in Canada – and around the world, really – austerity is the new normal. A well-intended reluctance to devote resources to anything other than political and social imperatives means that many governments are getting smaller, operating in more streamlined (and hopefully effective) ways. Tools that measure Return on Investment (ROI) and Value for Money often dictate how funds are allocated, whether programs continue, and what staffing levels support programs that remain. The tendency to overstaff with specialists to address every possible issue has been replaced by general encouragement to all staff to expand skill sets and tackle new challenges for which they may not be formally trained. Long gone are the days when bloated, overlarge bureaucracies sucked the treasury dry. Today’s ideal civil services are lean and mean, spread thin but agile, with staff cultivating resilience, change and time management skills, and adaptability like never before in this century.

What does this mean for government “extracurriculars”? Most levels of government, and government partners like IPAC, have organizations for public sector employees to learn, network and grow. GovLoop promotes various groups in the United States, while the Canadian federal government has the Federal Youth Network and many provinces have their own networking and skill development groups – both for new and more experienced professionals. Wisdom has always dictated that the work done to serve and support these endorsed organizations must be done “of the side of one’s desk” – that is, in addition to the aspects of one’s particular job which are specified in, say, a position description. I personally know many people who have made an entire second career out of government volunteering and supplementary professional development of themselves and others off the side of the proverbial desk.

But what happens when the desk gets so big that the sides are farther and farther out of reach? How does this impact employee development, and ultimately morale and productivity?

When governments had more staff, there was more time for employees and management to support these government-endorsed, government-sponsored volunteer organizations. In the last decade or so, the trend towards reducing government positions (and their attendant pension plans, benefits and workspace costs) has meant that roles have gone unfilled and work has changed as tasks clump together and jobs get “bigger.” Work that once required two or three positions/people may now be accomplished in a consolidated fashion: where ten years ago a program had a strategy person, a policy person and an administrative person, one of those three likely does the work of all today. This is especially, poignantly true for government workers with caseloads. This type of restructuring leaves less and less time for participation in the informal activities which have always been touted as critical for employee development, and which are confusingly promoted by government employers even as management grows increasingly less supportive of involvement due to workload pressures.

What is being missed when we limit the participation of staff in these groups?

  • Breakdown of silos and enhanced horizontal collaboration– cross-government groups allow for engagement and horizontal learning across the public sector. They encourage multi-dimensional problem-solving that is next to impossible to develop when one’s entire career is spent in the same policy unit, working on the same problems in the same manner.
  • Exposure to new modes of work– working cross-government and on ad-hoc projects outside of one’s wheelhouse allows for sweeping exposure to new ways of doing things. If governments want agile thinkers who can challenge the status quo, they must support diversification and participation on projects beyond those formally attached to the position description of the employee in question.
  • Informal training and development of skills – employees today far less likely to have skill development paid for through governments. At the same time, employees are asked to take on roles for which they are not formally trained. Cross-government groups like communities of practice, policy networks and new professionals teams teach invaluable skills outside of a paid classroom experience, saving the employer money in the long run.
  • Heightened morale – it is not uncommon for government volunteers in extracurricular groups to state that their work with such groups provides a place to feel useful when their daily work is stagnant, intermittent, or unfulfilling. Morale can be greatly enhanced by the involvement in meaningful work – planning networking sessions or policy panels – even when that work is not directly related to one’s position.

Perhaps of late the prevailing sentiment is that government workers are not paid with public funds to network and develop themselves. Despite the existence of government networks promoted by governments, staff may be discouraged through their own workloads or lack of managerial support to participate. It is my contention that the benefits of participation in government “extracurriculars” greatly outweigh the perceived cost of lost employee time or focus. Governments as employers should never forget to maximize the passion and lively enthusiasm of public sector workers who are willing to engage at multiple levels across the organization, as they are often the invisible heart of the public service.

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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