• Opinion
  • August 30, 2018
  • 6 minutes
  • 1

Let’s talk about public servants’ hidden superpower — resilience

Opinion: We should celebrate success but follow that with a conversation about failure

This opinion piece was written by Brigette Metzler, a senior quantitative user researcher at Australia’s Department of Human Services and co-chair of the Australian Government Linked Data Working Group. If you’re interested in writing an opinion piece, take a look at Apolitical’s guide for contributors

I took my 84-year-old dad to the dentist today. It was tough on him as he’s completely immobile and frail. The effort to get from bed to a wheelchair, out into the light, down to the dentist and back again was enough to put him to sleep on the drive back home. Holding one hand on his softened-by-the-years woollen jumper, just to reassure him — even in sleep — that I was there, that he was safe, I looked out the window into the sunshine and thought about change.

Most specifically, I thought about change and resilience — and the public service. Public servants are often seen as the most cautious of people, portrayed in the media as unready, slow to change, unable to innovate.

But we’ve got a lot to give, and we do give a lot. It is time instead to celebrate our immense resilience, which I think could be our hidden super-power.

“When you change government, you make big, whole-of-society type change”

When you change government, you make big, whole-of-society type change. For that reason, it’s really very hard to be a change-maker in government.

The Apolitical top 100 most influential people in digital government was recently announced, and I want to stand on the rooftops and shout about these people. Not because they are important and inspiring (though they are), but because they represent a beacon of light for our capacities as public servants to fall and get back up, over and over.

They and the teams of people who got them into that spotlight represent all that’s amazing in the public service. Digital transformation, and transforming work in general, is a hard slog. There are thousands of people in governments all over the world trying again and again to press beyond the status quo, like kids at the park trying to reach the top of the climbing gym.

There are even people not trying to do transformation, but instead seeking to create positive change by iterating out slowly, edging closer to a future they want. I want to celebrate all these people and their perseverance, tenacity and dogged determination.

Working in government is the opportunity to make a better life for the people around us — a huge responsibility. But doing so requires strength of purpose and dedication to falling down and getting back up, over and over, until that moment when we succeed. It also requires the strength to not pause when you do succeed, before moving onto the next challenge that needs our grit and determination.

“When we seek to transform, we ask public servants to stand on the edge of a precipice from the known to the unknown”

We want to hear the successes of the top 100; they are the light showing us that while falling down hurts, it is possible to succeed. And we know that for those 100 people, there were also thousands more with them.

But here’s the thing: if we’re each going to find the strength of will to pick ourselves up again and again, we need to see that these leaders have been there too. To those amazing people in the top 100 and their teams, I say this: The thing most of us in the trenches want is to see that you stumbled too. We want to know how you got back up when you didn’t feel like you could anymore — what went through your mind? How did you pull yourself back up again?

If you’re in a team that does transformative work, how did you look after yourselves while you risked everything? How did you keep going?

“Let’s celebrate success. But let’s also follow this with a conversation about failure”

When we seek to transform, we ask public servants to stand on the edge of a precipice from the known to the unknown. We ask them to take a huge — scary — leap of faith. We need to hear how those who fell down that cliff climbed back up.

Let’s celebrate success. But let’s also follow this with a conversation about failure, stepping off ledges and finding free fall where we thought there was a ledge. Most importantly, let’s hear about what you did next. — Brigette Metzler

(Picture credit: Pexels)


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