By Alex Starritt

31 Jan 2017

If you had one wish for your work, what would it be? Alex Starritt asked officials from across the UK and around the world that very question. Their answers were strikingly similar

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

1. Recognition

What came up time and again was that civil 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 tends not to know what civil servants do, it often questions whether it needs to pay for them at all. 

Moreover, budget cuts since the financial crash of 2008 mean that many of the services they provide are becoming more thinly stretched – or are dropped altogether – often resulting in complaints directed not at the macro-economic situation, but at the civil servants trying to cope. 

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

Another said: “It’s unfortunate that civil servants are routinely maligned in popular culture as dim-witted, cardigan-wearing bureaucrats. What I want is a universal recognition that the world is, in so many ways, a better place because of the incredible work of civil servants.”

“Any increase in pay this decade might be nice (my department has had nothing since 2008),” another civil servant said. “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.”

2. Risk

Many also wished that their institutions would trust them to try some more new things rather than merely sticking to the script. They said: 

  • “I know I speak for many of us when I say what we REALLY want 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 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 had made. 

“I would ask for ministers who are familiar with their subject matter, or at least given sufficient time to read about it 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,” was the entreaty of one official.

Another liked the idea of “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).”

4. Pay

There’s no getting around the fact that a lot of that same disaffected sentiment was bound up with unhappiness about pay: 

  • “Does more pay and less work count as an answer? Maybe go back to the Yes, Minister world where Sir Humphrey types pull all the strings? Joking.”
  • “Compared with the private sector, there is a significant step down on the pay scale. These jobs require an inordinate amount of work, time and emotional energy, as well as training, but aren’t fairly compensated. It is amazing how one’s inner security and physical health can be tied to a pay cheque.” 

5. The work

But there was also an abundance of incisive, practical wishes for making the whole business of government 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.” 
  • “Shrink the government’s consultancy budget by about 75% and actually invest in the civil servant workforce so they have the expertise the government claims it needs 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. 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.”  

What can we conclude?

Overall, the picture that emerges is of staff harried and frustrated by a heavy workload and a lack of recognition for their efforts – whether that’s in the form of public acknowledgment or in cold hard pay cheques.

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 that this work matters in a way that most jobs don’t. And among these civil servants there is a desire not just to do the work, but to do it better 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!

Read the most recent articles written by Alex Starritt - Making the global village a reality for policy

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