Things I’ve Learned in 5 Years as a Public Servant

At the start of 2018, I celebrated my fifth year of service as a federal government employee. I’m a *very* different person than I was back in January of 2013 when I first started working at NSERC, and a big part of these changes relate directly to things I’ve learned working in government.

A part of me thinks it would be really nice if growing up, people had to spend (at least) a few weeks working in bureaucracy (just like how everybody would behave better in restaurants if they had to spend a few weeks waiting tables and washing dishes).

It seems (to me) like pretty much everybody complains about how long things take in government, and I’m definitely not saying that bureaucracy is as efficient and streamlined as it can possibly be. However, I do think that these things move slowly for a reason, and that learning to take your time and consider multiple viewpoints while completing work that affects people’s lives and livelihoods would keep everyone a little humbler and more honest.

I’ve had the privilege of working on many different teams and projects in my time in the public service, and I definitely approach things now with far more consideration and patience than I used to. Work in government also gives some insight in to just how complicated issues surrounding politics tend to be, and specifically how almost nothing is as simple as someone might tend to assume from the outside.

Politics has become extremely divisive in the last few years, and I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that people are used to hearing only one side of a story, as opposed to looking at the bigger picture from an objective perspective, and making up their own minds. There is also a sharp increase in personal attacks in politics, as opposed to ideological differences being respectfully debated.

Another piece of what I believe makes work as a public servant complicated is the changing ways we communicate and share information with each other. Through the news and social media, we’re all exposed to a pre-existing point of view on every possible issue, and these are not always presented objectively (this depends very highly on your preferred sources of news).

The effect of this, at least for the purposes of this line of thinking, is that we think we’re forming objective thoughts and opinions, but they’re often just internalizing biased talking points that don’t look at the whole story. We’re all guilty of this, and not just when we’re laughing along as late-night talk show hosts bash the current US President. One of the really handy things public service has taught me is to recognize where these biases are and to not get caught up in ridiculing the little things that go on in every social group (US executive administrations included).

It’s hard to say for sure whether I’ll spend the rest of my career in the public service, but I’ve loved the lessons I’ve learned so far, and the skills I’ve gained, and I’ve been able to manage my cynicism so far. One things that helps with that aspect in particular is to focus your personal efforts to improve your workplace to the things that you can control, and realize that you won’t be happy with every single decision that gets made around you, but to pick your battles and limit the energy you exert on things that feel important but don’t actually serve any particularly useful improvement to the way things are.

Here’s to the next five years!


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