This opinion piece was written by Joseph Maltby, a change management specialist in the US federal government and chief outreach officer at Young Government Leaders. It also appears in our government innovation newsfeed.
The question of how to make an impact — and to know you are doing so — is something that I believe all public servants struggle with throughout their careers. The people who do the most long-term good are the people who become comfortable with that struggle and recognise that it will never truly end as long as you care about making a difference.
But it’s a particularly pressing question for new or young employees, who are forced for the first time to navigate the bureaucratic system that is government.
What is impact?
New people have a lot of different ideas about what they need out of their careers. The first thing to do is to ask yourself: what does it actually mean for me to make an impact? Having a concrete idea about what you are trying to accomplish, and what you don’t care about, can help avoid the frustration that is inevitable when working in a bureaucracy.
In conversations with many young public servants, I’ve found that “impact” means one of three things to them.
For some, it means doing more senior-level work with less supervision and greater independence. For others, it’s tangible things, like getting an actual promotion, a better job title, or a raise. And for others, it’s about whether they are working on issues that involve real people. Often government can be very abstract, and people can feel like they aren’t accomplishing anything in the real world because they are pulling a lever that pulls another lever that does something way down the line.
Learn the discipline of change
I’d also advise young public servants to learn a little about the discipline of change management; the study of how to get other people around you to accept change. It makes sense not to reinvent the wheel and not to try to come up with solutions to eternal human problems on your own. You will always need others’ help, and getting support from colleagues for your ideas will be critical from day one.
“Getting support from colleagues for your ideas will be critical from day one”
Your biggest obstacle when you want to change something often isn’t the difficulty of doing it or the resources involved, but the beliefs and attitudes of the people who need to change. Your battleground is the hearts and minds of other government workers, customers and the general public.
One new idea is that in the modern workplace, everyone is a knowledge worker and in charge of something. There are few places, especially in government, where people simply move things from A to B — there’s a chance for everyone to lead change, even if they are not “in charge”.
There are a couple of good, short books I recommend as a place to start. The first is called Leading Change by John Kotter; the second is Transitions by William Bridges. Even if you save yourself two to three years of trial and error, that could make the difference between staying a civil servant and giving up.
“If you listen, people will tell you what they are afraid of”
However, while it’s important to know a basic framework, there is no one way to accomplish things within the civil service. I’ve worked with several different public sector organisations with different missions and cultures, and tools which work in one place sometimes don’t work at all somewhere else.
Learn the language and practice patience
The people who get the most frustrated are the ones who, as it were, come to a foreign country and don’t, or can’t, learn the language. Being adaptable and willing to try and discard new ideas — and to fail — makes the difference between those who succeed and those who don’t.
Being adaptable also means listening very closely when people disagree with your ideas for change. If you listen, people will tell you what they are afraid of, what they don’t like and what they want, even if not explicitly. You can use that information to make your case more strongly.
Finally, any public servant, but especially those who are new and excited to make a difference, must remember the value of patience. There’s a short talk by Simon Sinek which outlines why some younger people lack patience. It’s partly the consequence of growing up in times of enormous change, which leads to a higher tolerance for how much uncertainty you can handle at one time.
“Any public servant must remember the value of patience”
It’s also partially technology. Studies have also shown that the instant gratification of smartphones and the internet is changing everyone’s level of patience, no matter how old they are. And young people have always been impatient. It’s part of our charm.
But patience is critical. Public sector organisations push back hard on change. People who are not resilient get frustrated and leave too soon to make the difference they really want to make. You don’t want that to happen to you, and to leave knowing there was a difference you didn’t make.
You want to look back on your public service career, no matter how long it is, and know the world is a better place because of you. That’s what we all want. Hopefully this helps you get there. — Joseph Maltby
(Picture credit: Pexels)