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On My Transformation from Social Worker to Public Servant

I read somewhere that the (median) average age of entry into the Canadian federal public service is 34 years old. That fits me reasonably well; this is my second career. For my first 10 years of “professional” employment I was a social worker, and my speciality was child and adolescent mental health. It was the most valuable contribution I’d ever made to society, and it was with palpable trepidation that I realized that I couldn’t do it anymore.

Social work can be the shortest career of a person’s life. I’ve known people that lasted less time in the field than it took to earn the degree to get them there. To say it’s a hard job is a grievous understatement. It’s frequently misunderstood — even feared and hated. It’s societally undervalued, emotionally draining, and woefully underpaid.

I’m ashamed to admit that it was the last of these which finally forced me to take down my shingle. Decisions I’d made to improve my own life — marriage, children, a home of my own — made it an impossible wage to live on. But where to go?

After a positive work-placement experience as a student, I told someone that I was considering a long-term career in the public service only to have them ask, “What does social work have to do with government?” Good question. Tip: You can easily gauge someone’s perception of government by answering: “Well, they both exist to help people.” just as I did. Tip: If the person you’re speaking to falls over laughing or punches you in the face, this may indicate that they harbour repressed anti-government sentiment.

Trust me: I’m a behavioural expert.

All frivolity aside though, this change of direction prompted a number of questions and doubts, from others and from within. Was my most valuable contribution to society now to be a thing of the past?

When you think of government, what images does it evoke? Imagery of power, bureaucracy, hierarchy, insularity and disconnect? I can’t say that these spectres didn’t leave me feeling unsettled. As a social worker, I possessed a sense of identity, duty and integrity that I didn’t want to risk compromising to any degree.

I think that bureaucracies can create efficiency and logical order, but can also foment disordered thought and behaviour through their structure and culture. Bureaucracies have the ability to change people for the worse, if individuals lose sight of themselves, or begin to closely integrate their sense of power and position within their definition of self. I am not singling out the Federal Government. Rather, I’m thinking of my workplace experiences as a whole, along with information gleaned from co-workers, and plain old common sense. I understand that this capacity exists within any large and complex organization: the risks associated with becoming part of something that makes you lose a part of yourself.

And while social workers may have a certain sense of themselves, their purpose, and their personal and professional principles, there is no denying the lure of expert power. It’s something that the public expects and demands, and something that social work therapists like I was may aspire to even if they do not consciously acknowledge it. While we may strongly identify with the professional goal of empowering those we work with, we also harbour a human need to feel personally respected, professionally competent, and societally valued, and we may assert this in a way that feels empowering to us but that places us in a position of power over those that we intend to help.

I would be very surprised to learn that none of my fellow social work practitioners perceive any difference in status between the so-called “soft sciences” and “hard sciences”. I know I felt this “legitimacy gap” as a university student and sensed an internal imperative to close it somehow by trying to appear more scientific. What better way to achieve this than to become part of a large and powerful organization with a macro-focused human service, where my Master’s degree is a Master’s degree, and my value as an analyst or an advisor is based on the results of my work? After all, is all bureaucracy as evil as some fear, and is social work really as pure as I like to believe it is?

As a social worker who worked in a variety of settings and networked with a great many others, I’ve observed environments where constructed ideas about being a therapist, a supervisor, or a person with a diagnosis (part real, part theoretical — based on a best-guess) orchestrated a reality that governed how people thought of themselves, interacted, conducted their affairs, and perceived other people. I’ve experienced environments of co-option where people were so consumed by the necessity to get up to speed with the entrenched policies and procedures, there was no time to consider whether they were right or wrong, let alone change them. I observed people so fixated on meeting deadlines, paying bills, and surviving professionally, they did not have the presence of mind to understand how they were being changed in the process.

What have I learned from this?

While I’m proud of the good I’ve accomplished as a social worker, the groups I worked with and environments I practiced in weren’t idyllic. Nothing is. In the final analysis, there is danger in any large and complex organization, be it a government, a health care network, or a school district. There isn’t a job to be found that offers complete safety of integrity, or any person that can make a guarantee to watch out for you (and what you might change into) except yourself, of course. Probability of indoctrination is the risk inherent to attachment to anything significant. Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of the learner to remain aware of what is being learned, and exercise personal control over what becomes integrated as “self”. This is as true for indoctrination by a bureaucracy as it is for the indoctrination I received through my university education.

So today I am a social worker who was taught to embrace structuralism, but I work within an entrenched system that I believe must be fundamentally altered. I was educated to be an agent of change, but must work mindfully to avoid becoming an agent of the system. I am able to bridge this gap because I believe that small change is possible, even within a bureaucracy. It isn’t the permanent, fundamental change that structuralism desires, but then, nothing is permanent in government. I am eager to see what small changes I can accomplish, particularly as a member of the small but powerful group championing social media in the Government of Canada.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Todd! Another great post (following on the heels of “Privacy and the Thousand Tiny Knives”.

You may be interested in this study “Attracting the Next Generation” as it indicates the average age of Federal new hires in the US is 33 – aligns with Canada.

I came from the non-profit and educational sectors – both in roles that supported the work of government. The leap from social work to public service is short. Both roles have a mission behind them that strives to serve the common good. Social work, in many ways, seems to be more focused on the individuals (though I recognize it can foster systemic change)…whereas public service offers the chance to have a broader impact…or, at least, that’s my perspective.

As a salient, current example: It’s the difference between enacting health care reform and implementing it, eh?

Todd Lyons

Thanks, Andrew! I will definitely have a look at that study. I agree that social work is primarily individually-based care… I focused my graduate studies on macro-practice (with communities and such), so it wasn’t as daunting a leap as it might have been to serve a community of 33 million. 🙂 I’m not sure if you read my 4-part series here on US & Canadian comparative health care, but I was very pleased that Congress has come to an agreement on reform. Implementation is definitely a significant challenge, but I’m hopeful for the future.

Mary Groebner

I love the last paragraph (I’ve never been a social worker, but always been a public servant).

I think public service itself is a very noble concept. When you are talking about direct client service (like social work or teaching), that nobility is on display. When cutting government, even anti-government people say ‘yeah, but not the social workers’ or ‘yeah, but not the teachers’ – cut all those OTHER people. (Of course, the direct client service folks are also in the spotlight more easily if a bad outcome happens, like a child dies because they were left in a questionable home too long…)

For the rest of us, being in something as far removed from direct service as I am (IT), it’s a bit more of a struggle to ‘tie in’ to the mission of the agency or of government in general, cuz it seems more like a job you could have for any organization, not specific to public service.

I personally think that’s a big problem, because to work in government – I think a pre-req should be that you BELIEVE in good government and its’ ability to effect positive change on those it governs, whether that is to help them out of poverty, enable struggling start-ups to survive, enact and ensure environmental protections, etc. If you deeply believe in that, it’s much easier to build the logic model that relates your job, no matter how back-office, to it – and to work to make government as efficient and effective and open and transparent as it can be. Because you a) see the power of it as a good thing, and b) know that its’ power must be wielded responsibly.

Those in public service because they just see it ‘as a job’, even if they despise government as an institution, can (often subconsciously, sometimes not so much) likewise do their part to make their piece of government into a self-fulfilling prophecy. You know, walking into work thinking ‘it doesn’t matter anyway, it’s a big bureaucracy with stupid rules and why bother trying to change it’.

I find more and more, as this career in public service gets longer and longer, that the latter attitude REALLY bothers me, because I so much want to make a positive difference and help do my part for government to EARN the trust it so wants from the public. (Note: government isn’t the only institution people have lost trust in, and it’s that lack of trust in our institutions that is at root of a lot of misdirected anger in this society. Or, that’s what I think :))