• Analysis
  • December 21, 2016
  • 14 minutes
  • 0

What public servants around the world want for Christmas

From greater recognition to room for experimentation, here's what government workers wish for

‘I wish that “local government officer” replaces “fireman” and “policeman” as the sexiest occupation’ – That is just one of the bushels of Christmas wishes we have collected from public servants in the past few weeks. Keeping everything anonymous so they could speak freely, we asked public servants on five continents – from the very top of venerable institutions and international organisations right down to the people on the front line in their neighbourhoods – what one thing they would wish for in their work – and the answers were remarkably consistent.

Many showed how wrapped up they are in what they do, wishing for things like ‘a final draft of the law on e-government. And for the 2017 budget to be in machine-readable format’ or for ‘a long-term infrastructure fund with cross-party membership and insulated from general election cycles.’

1. Recognition

But what came up time and again was that public servants wish to be recognised for the impact of their work. It’s hardly surprising. The culture of anonymity means that their work barely registers with the public unless it goes wrong, and because the public doesn’t know what they do, it often questions whether it needs to pay for them at all. Moreover, budget cuts since the crash of 2008 mean that many of the services they provide are getting more thinly stretched, or dropped altogether, often resulting in complaints directed not at the macro-economic situation, but at the public servants trying to cope. They said things like:

‘What I really wish for is more appreciation for my and my colleagues’ work from the people. There is still a stereotype that public servants are lazy and that tax money is wasted on us, but we are drowning in work.’

‘It’s unfortunate that public servants are routinely maligned in popular culture as dim-witted, cardigan-wearing bureaucrats. What I want for Christmas is a universal recognition that the world is in so many ways a better place because of the incredible work of public servants. If Santa could arrange that for me, I’d be a happy man.’

“The world is a better place because of public servants”

‘Well, we are called public servants – we get it: we are servants, but servants also wish to be appreciated when we do things well and not only wait to be criticized when things go wrong.’

‘Public servants are often seen as an elite part of society cosseted with good salaries and benefits. Rarely is the downside appreciated, so I would wish for: more understanding of what public service entails and more feedback of what the public wants – rather than grumble and complain, they should make constructive suggestions.’

‘A decent office Xmas party that involves a little bit more than cheap wine from a box and Sainsbury’s sausage rolls might be a start. Any increase in pay this decade might be nice (my department has had nothing since 2008). And, God forbid, maybe even some public acknowledgement from senior government that a) some public workers work hard, b) are good at their jobs, c) provide a valuable service to the country, and d) that we aren’t all overpaid and milking the system with big fat pensions waiting for us.’

Some of the public servants we've interviewed in 2016 (NB: not our Christmas wishers)

Some of the public servants we’ve interviewed in 2016 (NB: not our Christmas wishers). These are: Ania Calderon Mariscal; Anselm Sprandel; Carolina Pozo; Marija Kujacic; Siphesihle Dube; Per Bolund; Gyan Mani Nepal; Majd Shweikeh

2. Risk

Many also wished that their institutions would trust them to try some more new things rather than merely sticking to the script. The ingenuity of thousands of minds is just waiting to be tapped. They said:

‘I know I speak for many of us when we say what we REALLY want for Christmas is a higher appetite for risk and trying new ways of doing things.’

‘I wish for Government Groove. We must learn from jazz: there are no wrong modes, it’s how you play after the mistakes that counts. Not trying to hide it or blend it in, but to jam around and go back to it again, only to make the wrong mode an essential part of a new masterpiece. And everyone is responsible for the collective to fulfil their purpose.’

‘My Christmas wish would be to shed this restrictive perfectionist attitude and embrace a “fail better” mindset.’

3. Politicians

There was also a lot of mutinous muttering about the competence or otherwise of politicians, and the wisdom or otherwise of the decisions they’d made, such as:

‘I would ask for ministers who are familiar with their subject matter, or at least given sufficient time to read in before they start, or at least not reshuffled all the time so they have no chance of getting a grip on the subject during their term.’

‘Obvious wish would be a slow and painful death to Brexit. But I would settle for fast and painful.’

‘Having the space to express our own views without it creating a media storm or it being seen to undermine government. (The Bank of England for example have a staff blog).’

Some of the public servants we've interviewed in 2016 (NB: not our Christmas wishers)

Some of the public servants we’ve interviewed in 2016 (NB: not our Christmas wishers). These are: Kevin Drew; Nella Brodett; Tiago Peixoto; Bruno Sanchez-Andrade Nuno; Daan Eijwoudt; Graca Fonseca; Tracey Naledi; Fernanda Campagnucci

4. Pay

And there’s no getting around the fact that a lot of that mutinous sentiment was bound up with unhappiness about pay:

‘Does more pay and less work count as an answer? Maybe go back to the “Yes, Prime Minister” world where Humphrey types pull all the strings? Joking.’

‘Compared with the private sector, there is a significant step down on the pay scale for jobs that I consider essential to the health and well-being of citizens. These jobs require an inordinate amount of work, time and emotional energy, as well as training and education, but aren’t fairly compensated. It is amazing how one’s inner security, physical health and physical security can be tied to a pay check.’

5. Stocking-fillers

But there was also an abundance of incisive, practical ideas for making the whole business of governing work better:

‘I would ask for compulsory challenge i.e. red teaming, being forced to write down all a policy’s weaknesses, preferably done by people with separate line management (possibly from other departments on a rotating basis?) who are judged solely by their ability to criticise things cogently! That would improve decision-making.’

“We aren’t acknowledging how interconnected a business public policy is”

‘Shrink the government’s consultancy budget – where they just pay to get a fancy justification for the decision they’ve already made – by about 75% and actually invest in the public servant workforce so they have the expertise the government claims to need to buy externally. And end the erosion of technical and project management skills in the public sector. How do so many public funded projects come in over budget and schedule?’

‘My wish would be the same if I was still working in a corporate environment – that people seek more ways to work across their various departments, and less so within them, and are open to solutions outside of the way things have “always been done”. I find we don’t ask often enough what the value is in whatever we are doing or the questions we are answering. We are too busy running around, and don’t bring together different perspectives even internally because that takes more time and makes things more complicated. But that means we aren’t acknowledging how interconnected a business public policy is.’

Some of the public servants we've interviewed in 2016 (NB: not our Christmas wishers)

Some of the public servants we’ve interviewed in 2016 (NB: not our Christmas wishers). These are: Karen Aldridge-Eason; Siim Sikkut; Nanette Schippers & Femke Haccou; Carlos Gonzalez Martinez; Cecilia Vaca Jones; Brian Gallant; Melissa Bertolo; Kieron Boyle

6. The public

And there were too many wishes to publish that were about changing things for the people affected by these public servants’ work:

‘I put a lot of energy into getting more companies to take in refugees for internships, but not all of them are that eager. I wish more people would see the advantage of having a new person in that job and what they can contribute. These are people who are super talented with hopes of doing something.’

‘I wish that supporting young people, through education, income-generating activities and the promotion of social engagement, such as volunteering, becomes the first priority in national and supranational politics. This is crucial for social cohesion and our future.’

‘I wish especially for developed nations to ratify The UN International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.’

Public servants

Overall, the picture that emerges is of a cadre harried and frustrated by overwork and a lack of recognition for their efforts, whether that’s in the form of public acknowledgment or in cold hard paychecks.

But the picture’s other aspect is a determination, sometimes grumbling, sometimes stoical, often zealous, to get done the things that matter. Because there is no escaping the recognition that this work does matter in a way that most jobs don’t. And among these public servants there is a desire not just to do the work, but to do it better, cleverer and more imaginatively; not just to steady the ship but to make people’s lives easier, healthier and more fulfilled.

As our final voice put it: ‘We can change the world, we can save our climate, the environment and society if we get together and use our creativity, our craftsmanship, our entrepreneurship to accelerate the implementation of sustainable innovations right now. No delay, no excuses, just do it!’

(Picture credit: Flickr/Rahamond)

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