Public servants are doing great things — they need to shout louder about them
He wasn’t the first person to make that joke. I’ve heard it regularly since I joined the public service four years ago. But for the first time, I felt a little annoyed instead of ruefully amused. Why are people so inclined to malign public servants? And why are we so complicit?
I came into government following more than 15 years in corporates and management consulting. During that time, I’d worked with government as my client, as my customer and even as my shareholder, so I thought I knew what I was getting into.
But I didn’t.
When I say this, private sector people often nod and say sagely, “Ah yes. Politics.”
Fair cop. The interface between politics and the public service can be difficult but this kind of complexity is present at senior levels of the private sector too.
The more material challenge is that most of us are working in organisations that were designed by a small group of men, typically upper-class and white, back in a time when women couldn’t vote, psychology didn’t exist and the lightbulb hadn’t been invented.
Since their establishment, these organisations have been tweaked, stretched and squashed (but seldom — if ever — really redesigned) in an attempt to meet the needs of our rapidly evolving society, compounding them into highly complex and sometimes dysfunctional operating systems.
Now add the size, scope and criticality of government services, as well as the fact that our “customer segments” are everyone. Then add in a “market” that’s growing in a turbulent socio-economic environment, along with an ever-increasing need for improved services and engagement, partnered with often-decreasing funding.
I don’t care how much of a multi-national conglomerate omni-channel corporate you are. Government is harder.
We’re all familiar with the stereotype of the incompetent, grey-cardigan-wearing, socks-and-sandals bureaucrat. But many of the people I’ve encountered in the public sector are actually quite extraordinary.
They’re constantly required to do more with less in a system that never has time to address its underlying organisational dysfunction. They’re motivated and smart, resilient and tenacious — you have to be if you want to get anything done.
They also generally and genuinely want to do good.
And they’re endearingly modest about what they do. They take their titles literally — a public servant is there to, well, serve. And if you’ve got that mindset, then you’re certainly not going to go around making a big deal about what you’re doing.
But this is where things have to change.
As public servants, it can feel like we’re besieged by negative feedback. The media love to hate us, our neighbours make snide comments about government inefficiency and we even flagellate ourselves with the constant focus on our “aversion to risk” and “fear of failure”.
Some of this is deserved, but we need to understand that there is much more to the story.
Despite the limitations of the system, there are extraordinarily innovative things happening in government. We’ve all seen them — not just in publications like this one, but also in our own organisations. People have brought new ways of working — new methods, new partnerships, new technologies — to create better outcomes for the public we serve.
The problem is we don’t talk about these things.
If we don’t promote and share the good work that we’re doing, then we’re actively doing a disservice to the public value we can and do create.
It takes superhuman effort to break out of bureaucracy to engage with citizens and stakeholders and create better value for the public. We need to make these efforts visible and create new norms, setting shared expectations that our managers and colleagues will also try to learn and persevere.
Our language shapes our thinking. By keeping quiet about the good things and not contradicting the public stereotype of incompetency, we’re effectively complicit in that narrative, and research shows that humans perform down to their stereotypes.
If we don’t promote our work, our leaders don’t see the evidence of the good things that can happen when people are willing to try something different. Our citizens can’t understand that their taxes are also being used to do good things.
And if we can’t see a different narrative happening, then we can’t learn from it. Our colleagues can’t find us when they’re looking for precedents, proof points, assistance or even just moral support. We can’t share our experiences of what works and what doesn’t.
In Victoria, we’ve created an Innovation Network that connects colleagues across departments. It provides a digital platform for Victorian public servants to share tools and resources with each other, alongside news of successes and discussions of challenges.
We’ve also partnered with UK innovation foundation Nesta to prototype the States of Change innovation learning program with 10 teams of management-level public servants. The program focuses on learning-by-doing and solving problems collaboratively.
It’s hard to make new things happen in government, so promoting our good work is important. We can’t change anything if we hide our light under a bushel — it may feel modest, but it’s actually undermining our broader ability to change the system.
Taking the time to blog, or read a case study, or attend a networking event, or present on your work, or meet up with a colleague from another area should all be seen as integral parts of our role, because our work is less effective without them.
We launched a Victorian Public Sector Innovation Strategy in 2017, which authorises our public servants to do exactly this — to connect, learn, share and partner for greater public value. Our challenge is to keep walking that talk until the message is owned by all public servants.
Recent research suggests that it only takes a motivated, resilient and tenacious 25% to shift the thinking of an entire population. The public service has enough tough and talented people to make it to 25% easily, we just need to join forces and start speaking out.
So please, share the positive work that’s going on in government and the public sector. Public servants are making great things happen in a challenging environment, and we all need to know about it.