Civil Servants

First appeared in ‘Public Servant’ (U.K.)

“Civil Service. What a job – pushing paper, drinking tea wearing a bowler hat. You’ve landed on your feet you have…It’ll be a bit boring but you can’t beat a bit of job security. Job for life.”

Well that wasn’t exactly the reaction I received when I first began working for the Civil Service 20 or so years ago – but it was pretty close.

Today the job security has disappeared and I think most people understand that. However the drinking tea, pushing paper image is still out there. Why does that still persist I wonder. Is it because the only programme about the Civil Service was “‘Yes Minister” 25 years ago? Where’s our career makeover series? Where’s our “Airport”, “Dinner Ladies”, “Quincy“?

So what can we do? Maybe we make our own television series encouraging the public to be a little more sympathetic when they threaten to cut a few hundred thousand jobs – (even the post office had Postman Pat for God’s sake). This would help with our public perception. I remember an article in a local newspaper announcing 300 Civil Service jobs to go and a local councillor saying that this would help ease the parking problems in the area – I kid you not.

So, how do we go about changing our image? Perhaps a TV programme is the answer. Let’s see if we can create a loveable character that could embody all the qualities of a modern Civil Servant. Maybe we could do this by brainstorming the current predominant traits of a public servant – let’s see “stressed, undervalued, victimised” OK that’s not working. How about the traits we really believe in – deep down, somewhere deep down. You know that neglected almost-forgotten cliché about “making a difference”.

It’s slightly embarrassing to admit that you like your job, I know. But over the years the Civil Service has changed – there is new technology, new management training. There are Departments with a fair amount of autonomy that invest in high level technology and pay for themselves bringing in as much revenue as they spend. It has been a hard time in the \Civil \service in recent years adjusting to the tough new work of measuring everything, value for money and return on investment. Yet people stay. There are professionals that could be earning double, quadruple what they earn if they left the Civil Service yet they stay. I guess some of the reasons are comfort, laziness almost. But some of the reasons are to do with making a difference.

I had a boss once that kept telling us we were working to create a Bigger, Brighter, Better, Bonnier Britain” and we believed him. Everything we did from the most mundane (but hugely important) two hour introduction to Health and Safety (Part 1 – How to Lift), to three day strategic workshops for senior managers were carried out with that vision. That’s it. He totally believed it and instilled it into us. It seemed the most obvious thing in the world at the time. He had a team of 12 trainers and we would all have done anything for him.

As a leader within the public sector you have to be even better than managers in the private sector – in some regards. One in particular you have to be creative, inspirational and a genuine leader – motivation. You haven’t got financial rewards to motive your team. You can’t give your top staff a free week in the Bahamas as a result of satisfying the most customers. The best leaders in the public sector lead by their own personal power and values. They inspire by respecting and valuing each member of the staff and continually encouraging them to ‘make a difference’. This is done by talking, listening, doing the little things.

The boss I referred to before was definitely in this category. He would talk to each of his staff whenever he met them. This was not as simple as it sounds. His staff were based on a number of different sites throughout the U.K. but each team he was there he would take the time to ask about their children, partners, football teams, whatever was important to them. He would support you absolutely in public (You would certainly get some ‘well-constructed’ feedback in private later on) and take any blame that was going. All the staff would have done anything for him. One Sunday afternoon he called and asked if I’d travel to London that evening to attend a meeting for a colleague who was ill I would have. Of course I would. Anyone in our team would.

Over the years I have not worked with anyone quite as inspirational in the same way but I have worked with other passionate, talented people. Of course, I’ve had my share of tortured souls as well but I guess the percentages of good/bad are in my favour. It struck me a few years ago that this was important and one of the main reasons I’m still in the Civil Service after so many years – it’s all about the people. It’s not that every single one of us is driven by pure altruism but there are enough to make a difference.

And yes we seem to have all the pressures associated with the private sectors now – deadlines, targets, monetary restraints, redundancy with none of the rewards – perks, big bonuses, company helicopters, cheap mortgages, share options. Yet still so many people wouldn’t dream of changing jobs.

For all the problems with the image there is something unique about public service. OK I know things have changed a great deal (and job titles change even more) and today there are more specialists – statisticians, economists, analysts, etc yet many people still consider themselves Civil Servants first. This may change when their bank manager asks them their job title when they ask for another loan (project manager does sound better than B1, or EO).

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