From Public Service to public service

I was (and still am) an ardent supporter of Canada’s Public Service. It’s a public administration admired worldwide for its integrity and service to citizens. I’ve suggested that public servants need to share their stories more broadly because the media, politicians, and the public certainly won’t do it for us.

That said, I’m no longer working in the public service. My story is one of a public servant who sought bigger challenges elsewhere, because those within the public service no longer filled my cup.

I recently made the decision to pivot my career by serving citizens in a different role – I’ve accepted employment with a not-for-profit. After spending 13 years working for the Federal Government, it was time for something new. Opportunities are limited within the public sector during these times of austerity, so I looked elsewhere. I wasn’t engaged at work, and I didn’t feel my role was making much of a difference in the world. So I changed roles.

After I announced my job change, the reaction from one executive was, “Say it isn’t so, George!” That same executive imparted some wisdom on the subject of cross-pollination between the public and private sectors (quoted with permission):

I am a mid-career public servant. To date, I have still spent more time in private than in public, and when I hear of more migration between public and private, either way, I appreciate that it is all good. Good for the individual – a challenge, a learning experience, a revelation, a life state change that builds a healthy appreciation for what makes PS and Private different – but much more importantly, what makes us the same.

There are pretentious attitudes about each side from within each side that I have run into, and I am glad to be in a position to defend any harsh judgement of competence, work ethic, knowledge – whether it is PSers to PRIVers – or, as is more often the case, PRIVers to PSers.

More cross-pollination breeds healthy attitudes based on knowledge and, hopefully, the establishment and maintenance of professional connections.

I’m glad you are leaving, because I know you won’t be gone. Sending a great communicator, a networker, a social engineer, and a stand up guy from the PS to Private will showcase what superb talent rises from the Public Service.

I believe that public service can occur outside the walls of the Public Service. There’s a role to be played by not-for-profits, NGOs, and the private sector in delivering services to citizens. Working outside of the Public Service is an opportunity to learn new approaches and a chance to be an ambassador for the ethos of the Public Service.

Daniel Pink (Drive) suggests three elements are needed to deeply motivate employees: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Of the three, I believe that purpose – meaningful work – is of utmost importance to public servants. Why toil away as a faceless bureaucrat if not because you believe you’re making the country a better place?

As a public sector executive, what are some things you can do to ensure your staff know the purpose of their roles? I have a few ideas.

First, involve them in decisions, even if only as observers. Where possible, invite your team to senior-level meetings. Even if they aren’t active participants, knowing what’s happening at high levels lets them create links between their work and what’s happening organization-wide.

Second, make the organization’s results as transparent as possible. At my new employer, key metrics are updated on a regular basis on the corporate intranet. Monthly all-staff meetings are held to share and highlight the organization’s collective results – successes and failures. Every employee has a chance to hear what’s working, and what’s not. These meetings create feedback loops – ones that ensure that your employees aren’t just working hard – they’re working on the right things.

Last, connect directly with your employees and make those meetings a priority. If you have a ‘bilat’ with an employee only every month or two, you won’t build a relationship. If you often reschedule those meetings, you create disengagement rather than engagement. If you meet with every member of your team every week, even if only by phone, you’ll facilitate a connection to the organization, better engagement with the organization’s mission, and more commitment from each team member.

What have you done this week to keep your employees engaged in meaningful work? If you don’t have a good answer, don’t be surprised when they start leaving for greener pastures.


George Wenzel George Wenzel was a journeyman public servant and is now working at a not-for-profit – pursuing his passions in what will be his fifth career. He recently completed a two-year secondment to the National Managers’ Community as the Alberta Regional Coordinator. You can find him online at http://about.me/georgewenzel, http://www.govlife.ca, and on Twitter @georgewenzel.

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