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 more humble and 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!

The ‘Time is Money’ Continuum

When you’re a kid first getting their allowance, you would spend literally all the time you had in order to get literally any money. I would clean my room, mow the lawn and do yard work for a couple of hours in order to get a pittance (maybe $5). I had all the time in the world, and no money, so I would work as long and hard as I needed to in order to acquire even the smallest amount of money.

At 15, I started working at McDonalds. I was in school of course, but it was no problem working 8 hours each day on the weekend and 2-3 nights a week. The only things I had to plan around were the occasional soccer practice/game, and spending time with friends (which I mostly did at school anyhow). I would work a ton because I barely had any money, but I still had lots of time and could use every extra dollar earned.

By the time I hit 23 years old and finished school, I was working 40 hours a week, and trying to grow as a person, in order to gain experience and get a good, comfortable job. I was trying to pay off student loans, so I was working ‘full-time’, but I still had quite a bit of time on my hands, so I would do whatever I needed to in order to spend little to no money to do things.

This meant that when I built a website, I did it on a free platform, even if that meant putting a TON of time and effort in to making it do what I needed it to. When I wanted to watch a TV show or movie(s), I would find them online and watch, even if doing all that required a precarious, legally dubious setup that took months to get working just right.

When I was finding music or looking at online storage solutions, I used the free tier and navigated around in order to stay under every cap that would have required me to pay for anything.

Fast forward a little bit to about 2 years ago. I’m now married, starting to build a career where I’m happy at work and doing things I love. The time/money balance is starting to shift more towards money. I’m making a comfortable living and helping to pay down a mortgage, and I’m not worrying about where my next paycheck or my next 20 paychecks are coming from.

I’m still enjoying hobbies that are effectively free, but I’m starting to realize that the trade-offs I’d made when I was 23 just don’t really make sense any more. I am gradually coming to terms with the fact that I don’t have as much spare time as I used to, and it might make more sense to pay for some things to have them done now, rather than working for hours or days or weeks to have them done for ‘free’. Throwing money at a problem could make it go away, and would free up my time to spend with my wife, family, and the other people I care about.

When it comes to making a decision at this time, I’ll spend $20-30 here or there, I’ll subscribe to a $10 a month service if it’s something I use. The time I save by spending that money is well worth it.

This brings us up to today. I’m married, about 20% of the way through my career (probably), and I have an 8-month old daughter and a dog at home to take care of. Outside of sleep, commute, eating, work, making sure the baby has everything she needs, and things like making sure bills are paid, I get about 2-3 hours a day where I can even think about taking time for myself, or to potentially spend on hobbies (realistically, it’s more like 1-2 hours a day over an average week, not including weekends).

I make a comfortable living, which I’m extremely grateful for, and more than ever before, I find myself inclined to pay money to get time back for myself and my family. For me, that means signing up for a meal plan to get food sent to my door to reduce grocery trips, or subscribing to cable TV and Amazon Prime to watch TV and movies without thinking about where they’re coming from, or buying a virtual private server to host my website so that I have control over it as opposed to being ruled by and wrestling with the free hosting solutions I had previously been using.

On the time/money continuum, I have enough money that it’s worth it for me to spend it to get my time back in many situations, and I think a lot of people can take the time something takes for granted when thinking about how busy they are or what is most important to them. If the ultimate goal is retirement, is it really worth spending the most active 30+ years of your life constantly worrying if you’ll have enough money to make it through? I’m not sure everyone is truly considering the costs of that stress on their bodies when they make those calculations for themselves.

I’ve spoken before (a LOT) about the concept of basic income, and how everybody should have the luxury of not worrying where their money for basic necessities should come from. The other side of basic income is that it would let families where parents have to work 2 jobs buy some of their time back, rather than spending it all earning just barely enough to survive in poverty.

Giving every adult enough money to ‘need’ to work less would be a huge boon to the mental health and well-being of everyone in our society, and it would allow those of us who don’t have enough time to actually live their lives a little more flexibility to decide where they want to spend their time, and how they would like to spend their money.

I know if anybody in my family was struggling to make ends meet, I would feel an obligation to help them out, and I think it would do all of us a great deal of good to think of the people around us in our cities as family, and supporting anybody who has fallen on hard times by giving them money with no strings attached, just like you would a family member.

Everybody deserves to choose how they spend at least some of their time, and that requires money.

How Language Makes Politics so Divisive

The way we talk in every day life has a profound impact on the way we think about the things we’re doing. This TED talk gives some really interesting examples of the ways we don’t even realize that the words we use directly affect the way we think (and the way our brains work).

For example (mentioned in the video), there are people whose language doesn’t include the words “left” or “right”, and so they would stand facing north and describe their East and West feet. The words they have access to change the way their minds process the world, and in this case, all speakers of this language have excellent innate senses of direction. Another cool fact about this language is that when external directional cues are removed from a speaker’s environment, they can actually lose the ability to speak coherently until they regain a sense of cardinal direction. 

Seeing and hearing this, and the other examples in the video (and others), has really encouraged me to wonder how else the way we talk about things might influence the way we then think about them, and one specific case jumps prominently to mind: Politics.

The ultimate goal of politics and democracy is to improve the lives of the people being governed, ideally by enacting policies and laws they (the majority) are in favour of. However, with the increasing influence of campaign money in politics, and the disenfranchisement of voters whose elected officials stand up for the corporations lobbying them more than their constituents, actual politics in western democracies is changing.

With the changing priorities of politicians, a different kind of language is also used to discuss politics in the media. ‘Battleground’ districts, ‘fights’ for leadership, ‘races’ to election day, these all imply a win/lose dynamic which encourages voters to vilify the politicians from other parties. This, along with endless negative/attack ads reinforce the idea of a ‘two-sides’ rhetoric where one set of ideas is the best possible way to do things, and the other set is going to lead to the downfall of the country.

Obviously, aside from a real problem we’re seeing lately of a small minority of politicians with very extreme (dangerous) views gaining power, most people running for office think they have the best way to run a country for its people. However, lately, this minority of politicians has found that the ethics and ‘rules’ of politics aren’t actually necessary to gain votes and garner support.

With this political ‘battle’ vocabulary in hand, voters are being given one of two messages in counter-ads (for the opposition) and policy promotion (for the party in power). For the party in power, they will generally make a policy statement or propose a law and suggest that the public go along with it unquestioningly, or maybe with minor input from the public. For the opposition party (again, be aware of the language used to describe them), most policy positions seem to just be preventing any legislation or changes from being made (see Obamacare).

Using the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) as an example, it’s very difficult to see how making sure more people are covered by health insurance could possibly be a bad thing, especially when the people who aren’t covered by insurance tend to be younger, unemployed people who could easily be bankrupted by medical bills otherwise. However, as anybody who has been paying attention to American politics has surely noticed, Republicans have been campaigning on tearing up the Affordable Care Act even before it was passed or they knew what was in it.

Running on the idea of undoing everything your opponent is trying to do has also led to a shift in the conversation about climate change (as evidenced in my old post here). This kind of politics damages the credibility of everybody, not just those who choose to play dirty. It’s difficult to craft a campaign built on new ideas, or on improving what we already have, so most don’t bother now.

There is way more to gain by airing your opponents’ dirty laundry, and if they’re fairly squeaky clean, you can point at their laundry, say “look how disgusting this is!” and there is a pre-built subset of the population who will hang on your every word, even if it’s barely true. This is true of any political group, even if the very *worst* things a group does can vary wildly across the political spectrum.

In the media, it’s also very easy to follow these narratives and go back and forth between viewpoints from the different ‘teams’, rather than asking questions yourself and finding answers to them. This is why TV news shows will have panels representing various groups on to yell at one another, because it’s much more engaging than listening to real journalism and the boring nuance that is nevertheless much more accurate.

If we stopped using ‘war’ language to cover politics, I think it’s very likely the vitriol and fear-mongering that takes place would slowly start to fade, because it’s this language of ‘losing’ in battle that really stokes this fear in the first place.

Politicians used to be selected basically against their will, because who wants to spend their time making important but boring decisions when you could be out there enjoying life. The goal of politics should be to improve life for the people around you, and to get the heck out of politics once you’ve made those improvements. Hold power accountable and do your best to improve the average life while not harming the very worst off.

I hope that’s not too optimistic a goal.