I joined the civil service many years ago and now I am leaving it – though the Public Strategist intends to be as public and strategic as ever. There is a slight but, fortunately, resistible temptation to pontificate on the experience of those many years, but in the spirit of looking forward rather than backwards, I am instead going to share four thoughts, prompted in different ways by the experience of being about to leave.
It turns out that when you announce that you are leaving, people remember some of the nice things they have never quite got round to saying to you. As a counter to imposter syndrome it’s fantastic – though perhaps a little drastic. But what’s really striking is how much even small gestures which really touch people are remembered and treasured for years. Being generous with time and attention is something we can all do more of – and if we do it without expectation of any return, the return is enormous. Kindness is perhaps the most underrated leadership quality and it’s one we can all be better at.
You don’t have to wait until people are leaving to express your appreciation. A word of thanks, a gesture of appreciation, a little bit of reciprocal help, a touch of empathy and kindness – they are all easy to give and they can all have an impact beyond what you might think possible. And of course by being appreciative we encourage the behaviour we appreciate. That’s not really the reason for doing it, but that doesn’t stop it being a good thing.
It’s very easy to get used to what is usual. In everything from the tacit assumptions we make about the boundaries of policy possibilities to the way we manage our working environment, we all become institutionalised. What is seen to be possible is constrained by what is experienced as normal. But knowing that is the first step to challenging it. I have spent much of my civil service career in a customer service organisation which is not good enough at customer service; a department of state with policies which have not solved the social problems which are its core remit; a workplace where the tools fall short of modern standards and where efficiency and collaboration are harder than they should be.
None of that is to say that we should be negative about everything or that the work of the civil service does not have value. Quite the opposite. But it is precisely because it matters – in very different ways – both to the millions of people affected by that work and to those who spend so much of their time and energy doing it, that our ambitions should be commensurately demanding.
One of the nice things somebody said to me in a conversation prompted by my leaving is that they saw me as somebody who was very patient with people and very impatient with systems. I would love that to be true – I can’t guarantee the first part, but I do aspire to the second. More than that, I strongly encourage others to share that aspiration, to be impatient with systems, to be intolerant of not quite good enough, to ask the awkward questions and not to settle for “that’s just how it is” as being an adequate answer.
And that in turn takes me to one of the reasons for moving on after so long in the civil service. It becomes all too easy to accept that the way things are are the way they should be or the way they have to be. We can counter that by making sure that we bring people in with fresh perspectives and different experiences. But we can also counter it by being the fresh pair of eyes and taking all the richness of our civil service experience to other parts of the wider public service world – and that’s what I am about to do.
Hi Stefan, I am from NI Civil Service and recall encountering you on one of many trips to GB in connection with ESA, IB Migration and latterly UC. I vividly recall you giving an unscripted but amazingly structured, comprehensive summing up of a 2 day workshop held in the offices of Deloitte (or one of that lot!) adjacent to Hatton Garden. I saw you at NESTA last week and meant to introduce myself. I am now leading the NI version of Policy Lab and I am interested in whether you would share your wisdom to public servants here who are wanting to be successful innovators in a system that is risk averse etc?
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