Advice to new public servants: be bold, be brave, be kind
Preamble: I have been with the Ontario Public Service for a little over 13 years. I never expected to fall in love with being in the public service, but fall in love I did. Deeply. Irrevocably. For better or worse. The following is my advice for those who are just starting out in their careers. It’s mostly a collection of instructions that I wish I received much earlier in life and work. I hope you find it helpful; better yet, I hope you do the same for those who will join after you.
Dream big, be bold
I wish I’d read Janet Hughes’ piece on boldness as a public service value much earlier in my career. If life/work ever had such a thing as do-overs, I would:
- Assume good intentions of everyone by default, and just give them the benefit of the doubt, especially when I am working with limited information about people’s motivations and actions, the constraints and pressures they are under, the pre-existing environment in which they’re operating.
- Actively look out for opportunities to push for change from wherever I was in the hierarchy, whether it’s “briefing the change I want to see” or demonstrating, example after example, what’s possible.
- Don’t lose sight of the call to public service, no matter how tough things get. It takes an unusual amount of guts and grace to get through the slog — something I took for granted for years.
Bravery for me is about habits of mind that defy inertia in the public service. It means one needs to:
- Embrace the chaos — Government is complex, and it needs to be because we are in the business of messy human lives, and are constantly making decisions and trade-offs around the type of society in which we want to live and be a part of. Embrace complexity. Learn about how things actually work beyond what’s codified in legislation and in public communications documents. Take a genuine interest, and meet different people and the interests they represent. Resist the urge to oversimplify and make snap judgments.
- “Dream in years, plan in months, evaluate in weeks, ship daily” — DJ Patil’s motto perfectly describes the attitude and discipline required of a public servant. It’s not for everybody, and requires bravery because keeping that dream alive over the years is hard. For the most part, digital government offices understand the value of shipping frequently, but it’s far too easy to get lost in the minutiae of shiny objects and products being delivered, if those discrete products aren’t advancing the overall mission.
I noticed that the best leaders I have met in my career brought their full selves to their work and treated everyone around them — regardless of rank — with kindness. It’s a way of being that includes “How can I help?” as a default in every interaction, noticing and calling out injustice or inequities wherever they see it, and an openness to learning and understanding different perspectives.
If we are to move forward as public servants in the digital age, kindness matters.
The journey continues
I am grateful to the people who helped carve out a space for me in the digital government journey, and to everybody I’ve met and enlisted along the way. As a founding member, the Ontario Digital Service will always have a special place in my heart.
I’ve accepted a new role as Director at the Digital Academy within the Canada School of Public Service. I‘m honoured to work with this team and expand on the mission I’ve had the privilege of leading in Ontario through the Digital Service Standard and the Simpler, Faster, Better Services Act, helping public servants across Canada adopt the culture, practices and technologies of the digital era in order to make government work better.