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.