On being a public servant

Dave Mckenna
Oct 9, 2015 · 6 min read
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As a public servant I want to know how I can make the biggest difference.

I also want to know how I can be happier in my work and I would like to have a clear understanding of what being a public servant really means.

These are of course BIG questions with no easy answers. Nevertheless I want to explore them and I am starting with three ideas.

Here is a brief sketch of each.

1. It is all about the public good

The first idea is that public servants are simply those professionals who want to achieve the public good above all else in their work.

From this definition it follows that not all public servants will be found in the public sector, indeed, I have met many dedicated professionals in voluntary, community and private organisations who I would hold up as excellent examples of public servants. This is not a new thought, of course, and I am not alone refusing to equate public service with the public sector.

Perhaps a more contentious point is that many who do work in the public sector do not qualify as public servants according to this definition. These are people who, on balance, value their organisations, their careers or their own personal gain above the public good. I am not making a judgement here — far from it — simply an observation. I would add that there are times when even the most dedicated public servants have more pressing priorities.

I also recognise that defining the public good is itself a problem. People can have very different, even contradictory, ideas of what the public good might be in any given situation and these ideas can easily shift over time. Even if we can agree what the public good is in abstract terms — in practice it might not be so easy.

2. Public servants all share a common practice

The second idea is that, beyond their desire to achieve the public good, public servants share certain fundamentals in their day-to-day practice. This might not seem obvious given the diversity of roles that public servants have and the variety of settings that they work in. I have always been struck, however, by what it is possible to pick up from other disciplines and apply to my own work.

Indeed, recent research for the 21st Century Public Servant project has concluded that many public service professions are talking about the same issues but doing so separately.

These fundamentals of public service practice apply to things like learning, sharing ideas, making decisions, preparing and being organised. The implication is that there is as much value to be had from conversations across disciplinary and organisational boundaries as there is from corporate and professional learning. More than this, support is likely to be better when it comes from those who share public service values.

3. Meta practice makes better practice

The third idea is that practice is improved when public servants are able to think about what they do in general terms. Just as ‘thinking about thinking’ (also known as meta cognition) is helpful in terms of how decisions are made or habits formed, so ‘thinking about practice’ (meta practice) can help public servants to be more mindful of how they operate and so bring about improvements.

To this end I have a framework that I plan to develop, based on the work of the wonderful Elinor Ostrom, that breaks practice down into values, rules and knowhow. More of that another time.

I hope that this framework will be useful although the more important point is that, as public servants, we should have a ‘mental model’ of our practice that helps us to improve. It does not matter so much what the model is as long as it grounded in well tested ideas and that it proves to be useful.

The personal perspective

I want to explore these three ideas from the perspective of the individual public servant.

There are, of course many books out there about improving the public sector but these are aimed at organisations rather than individuals. They talk about topics such as ‘how to lead change’ and ‘how to foster innovation’. These are important issues of course but what if you are not responsible for an organisation or a department? What if you are concerned more with ‘how to survive change’ or ‘how to be creative’?

There are some more balanced accounts, written from an organisational perspective, but where the individual public servant plays a prominent role. Lipsky’s Street Level Bureaucracy is the classic example and still very much a recommended read. Another great resource is the report and blog of the 21st Public Servant project. Again, well worth exploring.

In the business world there are a range of books that the individual could turn to — books that can be bought in any airport or major train station. Some, such as ‘How to win friends and influence people’ or ‘Seven habits of highly effective people’ are as famous as best selling novels.

There is, however, no ‘biz book’ aimed at public servants. I wrote a short piece about that back in 2012 and suggested what it might look like. While my thinking has moved on the basic idea is still sound I think.

In the post I mentioned that Mary Mckenna had told me that she often reads biz books and found one of them — From Good to Great — so valuable that she bought a load of copies and got everyone at her company to read it. Mary has a great blog by the way — you should have a look whether you have your own business or not (In fact most good biz books will have something of use to a public servant — have a look at this 10 minute summary of 10 biz books from Louis Tsaii for a flavour).

The problem for me is that none of these books is written with a public servant in mind. Some are general to everyone. Some are just for entrepreneurs. But naturally enough, none talk about the public good.

A curious explorer

Approaching this from a personal perspective also reflects the fact that I am not claiming in any way to be an expert — rather a curious explorer looking for ideas I can use in my own work. Like any traveller I accept that I can only skim the surface of the places I visit but, at the very least, I will have found ideas worthy of further exploration.

If there is one thing I have noticed during by 20 years as a public servant it is that the challenges have become more challenging and the answers less obvious. The older I have got the less certain I have become.

As I write this UK local government is going through the biggest changes I have known in my career. While it is so important to be aware of how others are responding to these changes we should, I think, also pay heed to those who went through similar crises twenty and forty years ago. No doubt there is much we can also learn from the public officials of the ancient Greek Agora.

Again, my suggestion is that, beneath the surface of our very contemporary debates, lie a set of fundamentals that are as valid today as they would have been in the 70s, 90s or even ancient Athens. If these fundamentals can be laid bare then they provide a value connection to fellow public servants now and in the past.

As a curious explorer I want to cast my net as widely as I can. That includes some cultural icons of public service such as Lesley Knope, George Smiley and Frank Colombo.

Which reminds me that being a public servant also means having a life. Or, as Lesley Knope put it:

We need to remember what’s important in life: friends, waffles, work. Or waffles, friends, work. Doesn’t matter, but work is third.

I will end there.

For now.

How to be a public servant

Dave Mckenna

Written by

Public servant. #Localgov #Scrutiny Policy person. Dad. Husband. Citizen. Politics PhD.

How to be a public servant

from practice to theory

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