Don’t get offended by the following list. It’s just my experience. Many of these thing probably apply in any organisation, not just government. I’m sure many public servants find a challenging and rewarding niche and work their guts out. It just wasn’t me.
They start by showering you with praise for editing a brief, or arranging and chairing a meeting. Before long you start to believe these are real accomplishments. If you get given a piece of work that will take an hour, they ask you to get it back to them within two days. Perceptions shift.
2. THE EMPHASIS ON DOCUMENTS
The policy wings of the public service do two things: use words and use pictures. Meetings, briefs, powerpoint presentations and even budget documents really only contain these two things.
Thus a public service career may span twenty years of searching to write the perfect brief. The culture of using correct language builds up differently in each department but within each it is treated as gospel. The words that are spoken and written have stuff-all influence on the real world, however. Most public service documents are not read by anyone.
3. ACCEDING NOW
You almost never get a fight in the Public Service. Instead we compromise now, to maintain influence later.
Later, we compromise again.
4. THE BRUTAL PANDERING TO PRESUMED MINISTERIAL INTERESTS
If a minister so much as drops a hint that they think Australia would be better served by Lockheed Martin jets rather than Boeing ones, briefings and advice will centre on the presumed preferred option. If we think the PM has a bias against new taxes, new taxes will not be so much as mentioned.
5. THE VEHEMENT RISK AVERSION.
Politicians are judged by a (presumed) ignorant and highly conservative public. They don’t want one angle exposed that the Herald-Sun could use to make them look like an unelectable buffoon.
Equally, no public servant should ever, ever be in the paper. So we get arse-covering. No statements are made that could convey commitment to actually achieve things. No actions are taken that may be risky. Everyone is consulted. In many ways these are good things. They just mean the work is a little dreary.
6. THE MILD AND PASSIVE ACCEPTANCE OF HIGHER-UPS SHAMBOLIC DECISIONS
In the communal kitchen, while furiously submerging a lipton yellow label in a mugful of boiling water, there will be muttering. How stupid could the Minister, Secretary and Manager possibly be! But there is no formal feedback.
The public service has a military aspect, where rank is everything. Although no insignia are worn, everyone knows everyone else’s level. A level 4’s illogic carries more power and influence than a level 3’s truism.
If someone really high up is talking jibberish, noone says anything.
7. THE VAST PRETENCE OF SUFFICIENT WORK, BY BOTH SUPER- AND SUB-ORDINATES
There is a willingness to have enough staff to cover even the most unlikely blip in the workload. Very junior officers may initially go to their manager seeking more work, but they are gradually dissuaded and join the grand charade.
8. THE OBFUSCATORY LANGUAGE.
There are two interwoven streams of obfuscation. The day-to-day stream is the middle manager who is insecure in his intellect, and pads his communication with polysyllabic latinate words. He’s the chump who swallowed the management textbook.
The meta-stream is the Public service stock in trade, of using language to fill pages, rather than to communicate ideas. The publications are so full of weaselly little mays, mights, hopes, shoulds and intends that entire reams of high-gloss foolscap may flick by before a concept is conveyed unambiguously.
Here endeth the rant.
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