The elephant in the public service - Canadian Government Executive
LeadershipManagementPublic Sector
February 2, 2018

The elephant in the public service

‘Elephant in the room’ is a metaphorical idiom for an obvious problem or risk that no one wants to discuss or a condition of groupthink that no one wants to challenge. The self-imposed silence afflicts bureaucracies in all sectors. Power and politics exacerbate the debilitating effects in the public sector. Who wants to tell the emperor that he is not wearing any clothes?

Intergenerational differences are the elephant that hovers over public service changeover. Boomers, Gen-Xers, and Millennials co-exist in a public service coping with institutional schizophrenia. Today’s public service is like viewing split-screen episodes of M*A*S*H (1972-83), Cheers (1982-93), Friends (1994-2004), and Big Bang Theory (2007-present). There is something for everybody.

What are the symptoms in what might otherwise be a productive public service? Honesty and respect are often the early casualties. Public servants do not talk in polite company about how generational change affects them and their work. Instead, they speak in euphemisms about onboarding, succession planning, and talent management. This is code for “Ready or not, here we come.”

Boomers are checking out in record numbers. They lament the loss of institutional memory and call for intergenerational transfer of knowledge. They offer their services as coaches and mentors to not-ready-for-primetime successors. They ask rhetorically “Why reinvent the wheel?” Their experience and questioning can be mistaken for cynicism.

Gen-Xers are eagerly assuming the mantle of leadership. They distance themselves from past innovations, instead escaping to the hyperbole of invention. They are challenged to overcome the self-interest that accelerated their career trajectory. They worry whether ingenuity and connections skipped a generation. Their bravado and smooth talking can be mistaken for superficiality.

Millennials are biding their time in high expectation of unrealistic prospects. They are well educated and tech savvy but have inflated impressions of their readiness to succeed. They underestimate how quick and easy it is to make things happen. They look to a social safety net to support their development. Their insecurity and nerdish ways can be mistaken for naiveté.

Back to the basics

The new Editor-in-Chief recently asked what I thought about how CGE has evolved to meet its readership’s changing needs. As a former senior public servant and diplomat, my primal instinct was to be guarded and politically correct, but as a scholar and regular CGE contributor, I see things differently from the outside-in.

The tip-off was in the title Canadian Government Executive, which conveys much more than the orientation of a public sector trade magazine. CGE should certainly cater to its primary executive management audience, but it also has a responsibility to help prepare the next generation of leaders.

This means keeping the strategic focus on the ‘what and why’ rather than on the ‘how to’ to avoid hollowing out fundamental policy capacity. It means taking a business-as-usual approach to innovation, eschewing faddism like Deliverology while recognizing decades of results-based practice; and it means seeing technology as a strategic asset to be harnessed, not as an end in itself.

In a time of fake news and alternative facts, connections must remain stronger than differences. The public service must proclaim a bond in which one generation commends the work of another. Within diversity of age and experience, the generations must come together in mutual trust because they need and learn from each other. Their passion for public service is the uniting call.

 

John Wilkins is Executive in Residence: Public Management at York University. He was a career public servant and diplomat. (jwilkins@schulich.yorku.ca)

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John Wilkins

John Wilkins is Executive in Residence: Public Management at York University. He was a career public servant and diplomat. (jwilkins@schulich.yorku.ca)

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