Grit – and the other qualities of a good public servant

What it takes not just to get ahead, but to get things done

Are you thinking of making the government work better by getting involved in it? Out of dozens of interviews with some of the most pioneering public servants from around the world, we’ve isolated the traits you’re going to need – not just to get ahead, but to get things done:

1. Grit

Around a hundred Londoners each year survive a stroke that would previously have killed them because the city created new specialist units in better locations. It’s a famous case of excellent governing making people’s lives better. But to manage it, the reformers had to de-fund opponents, overcome bitter resistance and close the best existing stroke unit in the city – the one used by parliament. They started planning in 2005, opened the first new unit in 2010 and got the medical results that conclusively vindicated them in 2014. The woman who oversaw it all, Ruth Carnall, was was a dame and the doctor who did her research, Ara Darzi, was made a Lord. They won, but the fight was long and hard.

2. Tech savvy

Big data may be the most boringly named revolution in history, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t going to become as ubiquitous and essential as electricity. From live-tracking the dampness of flower beds in Barcelona’s public parks to calculating the economic cost of crimes or analysing the knock-on effects of pedestrianising a road, data is everywhere. Add in blockchain and machine learning, and knowing the number for IT isn’t going to cut it any more.

3. Confidence

Arnoud Passenier, a Dutch public servant, who brought together companies and universities to try and clean up Rio de Janeiro’s polluted bay before last year’s Olympics, told Apolitical, ‘I wasn’t given this assignment. I created this with people in my network. Only a week before signing the agreement, I said, “Well, Minister and State Secretary, there are fifty-five parties involved, so please, would you like to sign the agreement?” Of course they did, because the plan fits their political agenda and saying no to such a large group is impossible.’

4. Collaboration

‘It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.’ So said President Truman, and it’s never been more true than today. The increasing importance and availability of networks, whether online or off, has multiplied the opportunities for drawing on other people’s skills. Britain’s Fast Stream for its future leaders now consciously tries to build up their personal networks by moving them around departments and into the private and non-profit sectors.

5. Internationalism

Every country in the world has cities, schools and hospitals, and almost every country has hundreds of thousands of public servants coming up with ways to lower air pollution, ease traffic, improve exam results and cut waiting times. Especially if you don’t have the budget for detailed research – and even if you do – it’s easier to copy someone else’s wheel than to reinvent it. Online platforms and Skype have made it possible.

6. The ability to listen

The world’s biggest source on data and experience of public services is the public itself, and effective civil servants are the ones who know how to tap it. In Britain, that’s one of the things underlying the big successes of its Nudge Unit, based on behavioural economics, which has done things like bring in hundreds of thousands of new organ donors by designing the ‘user experience’. In Sao Paulo, Brazil, 25,000 public servants a year are retrained by crowdsourcing the public’s expertise in things like data, management and technology.

7. Storytelling

To mobilise the people that your networks bring you into contact with, you need to be able to articulate a compelling vision of why it matters that they do what you want them to. Get your storytelling right and you can move mountains. Two public servants in the US, Gabby Dreyfus and Chad Gallinat, together set up something called the Global Lighting Challenge, which has now brought together 14 governments, the European Commission and major manufacturers like Philips and Osram to switch to energy-efficient LEDS.

8. Friends in business

Never has there been a better time to collaborate with the private and non-profit sectors, partly because government budgets are so constrained and partly because business is now ready for it. A third of social enterprises in the UK are less than three years old, compared with around 10% of other small businesses, and more of them are growing. In other words, social enterprise is where the action is, and 59% of them do business with government.

9. An appetite for risk

‘It’s very difficult to get fired in government, so it’s the place where it should be so easy to risk things,’ Virginia Hamilton, a pioneer of human-centred design in the US Labor Department, told Apolitical. ‘And you know, I don’t get paid enough to not have fun at work.’ Doing something new means sticking your neck out, and it might go wrong. If you don’t accept, calculate and mitigate that risk, you’ll either mess with ordinary people’s lives or never do anything to truly help them.

Finally, you also need a healthy dose of optimism. Working in government is difficult, complicated and sometimes frustrating, but it’s also the most powerful institution in the country, capable of doing things that no other organisation could imagine. It’s a great responsibility, but it’s great power, too.

(Picture via Flickr user Wolfkann)

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