Motivating bureaucrats

In five months working for the civil service, I’ve lived some of the stereotypes of bureaucracy. I’ve also experienced profound motivation in myself and others.

In Daniel Pink’s book Drive, Pink examines research into the factors that motivate people to achieve great results: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Where does a public servant, required to follow procedure manuals to the letter to deliver a program, find these factors in the workplace?

Autonomy seems incompatible with an environment in which mandates are set by Parliament and its constituent political parts. Strict adherence to process and standards is required for certain work, but that is also the case in the private sector. We must abide by a code of ethics, but codes of professional conduct are also common in professions with a high level of autonomy. We have spaces to exercise our judgment, recommend improvement, and collaborate. It took me less than a fortnight to discover internal channels where staff are encouraged to innovate and communicate within and across departments. The energy in these environments reminds me of internal innovation forums, formal and informal, that I’ve used in the private and broader public sectors. For those of us who choose to participate, the satisfaction of making a difference in areas we are passionate about is its own reward.

Mastery didn’t take the shape I’d expected, given my prior prejudices from interactions for services like passports and income tax reporting. In the service, people in all types of job take pride in learning new skills and applying them, if anything to a greater extent than in low-skill and low-pay jobs in the private sector. I can name individuals in my office, in other regions, in other departments, even in our centralized IT, who regularly strive for and achieve excellence. It’s a pleasure and an inspiration to work with them. I have a concern, however, about our reliance on the mastery of individuals in the context of succession planning. When one of these worthies moves to another job, a different department, or retirement, any knowledge they haven’t codified is sorely missed.

Purpose often comes from alignment of employees with the department’s mandate. I’ve already touched on my own fulfillment in this regard. I’m taking a classroom-based course this week, my first significant exposure to public servants outside my day-to-day horizon in a work environment. The sense of doing work that has meaning for our personal values is as strong as I’ve seen anywhere outside volunteering. We may not enjoy high pay, lavish bonuses, and well appointed offices, but we more than compensate for those deficits in a match between our values and the services our jobs provide. That match starts at recruitment (competition for jobs is fierce) and continues through good management, both in senior leadership and with supervisors.

One of my neighbours works for Canada Revenue and he loves his work. Another is a mail carrier who recently went through a rough period when he couldn’t show up every day at the job he enjoys. A colleague in my office identifies her greatest strength and joy as persistence in solving difficult problems.

It’s no more universal than motivation in other large organizations, but highly motivated bureaucrats are here, in all the branches of the civil service, driven to excellence.


Resolutions? Dream on

New Year’s is upon us. With it come resolutions to start new habits, break old ones, and become a better person. My gym will be busier for a few weeks before it settles back to the regulars.

New Year’s resolutions are often the antithesis of SMART goals:

  • vague (get in shape),
  • hard to measure (be less of a jerk),
  • difficult to attain (quit smoking/drinking),
  • unrealistic (start giving talks),
  • without a deadline or milestones (get to an ideal weight).

We promise to be good. Days or weeks later, our dreams have turned to failed what-ifs like Rimbaud’s ambitions.

Making a positive change in our lives doesn’t have to end up as a broken promise to ourselves. It’s a project to improve our quality of life in a way that matters. As with any project, we need to approach the endeavour with structure, support, self-discipline, and a little slack.

Continue reading “Resolutions? Dream on”

They’re their

I like singular ‘they’. Along with the Mx. honorific, singular ‘they’ is a way to refer to someone whose gender is unknown, irrelevant, or non-binary.  The pronoun is not universally accepted, even in LGBTQ+ spaces (where more people use ‘they’ as a personal pronoun than in hetero- and cis-normative groups).

I wasn’t expecting a piece on singular ‘they’ while catching up on Toastmaster magazine this week. When I read John Cadley’s humorous article “The Missing Pronoun“, it developed better than I’d feared. The piece had some research behind it, as do many discussions, blog posts, scholarly writings, and pieces of journalism on English pronouns and gender that I’ve encountered. It wasn’t a bully pulpit of prescriptivist language: more a chuckle at something that’s odd and a little incomprehensible to the author.

Any living language changes over time. Authoritative sources are increasingly encouraging, rather than withholding, the acceptance of singular ‘they’ for everyday use. Some official sources of identification and identity management systems support non-binary gender signifiers. I’m peripherally involved in improving “unspecified” support for employees of Canada’s civil service to whom neither ‘she’ or ‘he’ applies. The wheels of bureaucracy turn, albeit slower than one might prefer.

Even someone who supports ‘they’ as an individual pronoun can find its use challenging. I’m encountering a lot of singular ‘they’ as I read JY Yang’s novel The Black Tides of Heaven. Akeha, a major character, is referred to as ‘they’ because Akeha does not have a gender. The need to determine the referent for ‘they’ is jarring in some contexts. Is this ‘they’ only Akeha, or Akeha and their twin, someone else whose gender is unknown, or another group of people? We’re not used to this kind of mental work in a language and a culture that places all persons in a box marked ‘her’ or one marked ‘him’.

I formally learned English, French, and German, all languages in which gender is embedded to some degree. I also was exposed to Finnish in my youth. The personal pronoun for a person is hän/se, depending on formality of mode rather than sex. Why classify people (English), everything (French), or a mix of people and things (German) as strictly female or male when most of the time it doesn’t matter? Finnish is unlike most languages in ways that sometimes, like ‘se’, suit my thoughts and emotions.

As each of us goes about their day, I ask the indulgence of a brief reflection on why gender matters, and whether it’s something you’d set the world on fire to be sure of.

Hitting the Wall

Hitting the wall” describes the point when an endurance athlete’s glycogen stores in their muscles are depleted, typically around 20 km into a race. The body has to work harder to use an alternate source of fuel, movement feels sluggish, and brain chemistry in this fuel-starved environment can produce lack of focus and a sense of despair.

Tools to avoid or overcome this nosedive in effectiveness include both physical training and mental preparedness. Building habits to reduce the stress of getting past the wall and maintaining awareness of one’s internal state are key to successful marathons.

We can hit the wall mentally and emotionally in other endeavours, whether we’re building technology or working in the arts. As with the marathoner, our minds and bodies are telling us they’ve come to the end of their readily available resources and something’s got to change. It’s up to us to pay attention and take action.

For many of us, December is filled with demands on our time, money, and energy. The risk of hitting the wall is greater than usual. Pay attention to which of your resources are showing signs of strain. Prepare to say no assertively and hold space for yourself so you don’t run out of fuel when you need it most.

Alan Seale’s blog on Transformational Presence has given me a helpful set of techniques for identifying when I’m close to hitting a wall and making adjustments. It’s not a cure for the effects of trying to do too much. Mindful presence and self-care helped me continue to be productive through an exceptionally full week in my workplace, my choir, and elsewhere in my life. It didn’t nullify a sleep deficit from several days that started early and ended quite late: on the first available day without an obligation, I rested.

Phasing through a wall as I speed toward it isn’t in my repertoire any more than crossing dimensions or traveling through time. Maybe in another timeline.

You call this a niche?

This blog is a horrible warning. It breaks several rules for what a charitable person might say is no good reason.

You may well have read something like Detective Sloan’s closing words in Catherine Aird’s mystery His Burial Too.

“If, Crosby,” said Sloan letting out a long sigh, “you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to be a horrible warning, that’s all.”

This blog is a horrible warning. It breaks several rules for what a charitable person might say is no good reason.

  • I do not stick to a single topic. The breadth that comes from writing what interests me is about as far from building a consistent, memorable brand as one can get.
  • This blog’s title is a reference to a little-known government report written by Sir Patrick Keenan (no known relation) for another country a century and a half ago. I am far from the proponent of segregation my namesake was. Slowly, as I continue to meet my self-imposed quota of at least one reasonably thoroughly researched small essay a day, I creep up the search results for Keenan Report. Which you don’t know is what you’re looking for unless you want to ask for it by name (see branding, lack of).
  • Weekly posting is a low frequency for a successful blog. And while I tend to release content on Friday mornings, I fail at being consistent in meeting that goal.
  • I don’t make effective use of tags, categories, and keywords. I picked a set of categories when I set this blog up and haven’t tuned them much since.
  • It’s sometimes surprising just what the connection is between the content I link to and the text. Relevant but jarring at times. For example, the Picasso link in this entry has a lovely retrospective of a rule-breaker’s work.
  • Occasionally I throw a curve ball at the reader, to wit:

When I took art classes with Linda Carson (who has since moved on to a broader kind of teaching), I absorbed very little pigment and somewhat more rules about rules. Writing is work with parallels to visual art. There are fewer and different rules than you think. It’s important to learn both the rules and the reasoning behind them so you can break them with a good idea of what your result will be like.

I started this blog (as opposed to continuing some of my previous blogging efforts, online journals, and social media) during a time when I was redefining myself. I’m still going through some significant changes, thanks in part to a career switch coinciding with moving to a new city and joining new communities.

Come for the reflections on leadership. Stay for the civic engagement. Wonder when technology will pop in again (clue: I should devote more time to writing R for this year’s Advent of Code). I’m here every week, learning (one thing that is consistent here) and sharing.

Welcome to an open house of what’s on my mind. Help yourself to whatever’s in the fridge and mind the cats.

December 6, 1989

On this day twenty-nine years ago, shortly after four in the afternoon, a man shot twenty-eight people in a polytechnic school. He killed fourteen women before he killed himself. The women who were killed then and the people who died by suicide after the massacre would be in their early to mid fifties today, had they lived.

As a trained computer scientist with a long history in information technology, I have lived my career in the shadow of the massacre of engineering students and their colleagues.

I slowly shifted workplace cultures around me toward acceptance of diversity of thought and background, as well as toward acceptance of treating people equitably regardless of sex.

I made myself useful in small, seemingly insignificant ways to ensure I’d be valued by my clients as well as my supervisors. That way my voice would be not only heard but listened to when I gained the social capital to speak up with and on behalf of women and members of other underrepresented groups.

I remained in IT long after it was sane and healthy to do so. Over the years, many times I was threatened or assaulted in a workplace context. I leveraged my experience to help a few other people experiencing inhumane workplace conditions.

I spoke and continue to speak truth to power, and to the powerless. This is my vocation, even more than network design and operations management and the leadership of men have been.

For twenty-nine years, this date is etched into my psyche as a day to resist those who would deny others life, livelihood, and equity. I cannot stop while there remains work to accomplish.