The five things all civil servants wish for

Written by Alex Starritt on 31 January 2017 in Feature
Feature

If you had one wish for your work, what would it be? Alex Starritt asked officials from across the UK and around the world that very question. Their answers were strikingly similar

cartoon of employee seeking recognition from bosses

“I wish that ‘local government officer’ could replace ‘fireman’ as the sexiest occupation.” That is just one of the bushels of wishes we've collected from civil servants in the past few weeks. Keeping everything anonymous so they could speak freely, we asked officials on five continents – from the very top of institutions and international organisations right down to the people on the frontline in their neighbourhoods – what one thing they would wish for in their work. The answers were remarkably consistent…

1. Recognition

What came up time and again was that civil servants wish to be recognised for the impact of their work. It’s hardly surprising. The culture of anonymity means that their work barely registers with the public unless it goes wrong, and, because the public tends not to know what civil servants do, it often questions whether it needs to pay for them at all. 

Moreover, budget cuts since the financial crash of 2008 mean that many of the services they provide are becoming more thinly stretched – or are dropped altogether – often resulting in complaints directed not at the macro-economic situation, but at the civil servants trying to cope. 


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“What I really wish for is more appreciation from the public for my and my colleagues’ work. There is still a stereotype that civil servants are lazy and that tax money is wasted on us, but we are drowning in work,” said one official.

Another said: “It’s unfortunate that civil servants are routinely maligned in popular culture as dim-witted, cardigan-wearing bureaucrats. What I want is a universal recognition that the world is, in so many ways, a better place because of the incredible work of civil servants.”

“Any increase in pay this decade might be nice (my department has had nothing since 2008),” another civil servant said. “And, God forbid, maybe even some public acknowledgement from senior government that a) some public workers work hard, b) are good at their jobs, c) provide a valuable service to the country, and d) that we aren’t all overpaid and milking the system with big fat pensions waiting for us.”

2. Risk

Many also wished that their institutions would trust them to try some more new things rather than merely sticking to the script. They said: 

  • “I know I speak for many of us when I say what we REALLY want is a higher appetite for risk and trying new ways of doing things.”
  • “I wish for ‘Government Groove’. We must learn from jazz: there are no wrong modes, it’s how you play after the mistakes that counts. Not trying to hide it or blend it in, but to jam around and go back to it again, only to make the wrong mode an essential part of a new masterpiece. And everyone is responsible for the collective to fulfil their purpose.” 
  • “My wish would be to shed this restrictive perfectionist attitude and embrace a “fail better” mindset.” 

3. Politicians

There was also a lot of mutinous muttering about the competence (or otherwise) of politicians, and the wisdom (or otherwise) of the decisions they had made. 

“I would ask for ministers who are familiar with their subject matter, or at least given sufficient time to read about it before they start, or at least not reshuffled all the time so they have no chance of getting a grip on the subject during their term,” was the entreaty of one official.

Another liked the idea of “having the space to express our own views without it creating a media storm or it being seen to undermine government. (The Bank of England, for example, have a staff blog).”

4. Pay

There’s no getting around the fact that a lot of that same disaffected sentiment was bound up with unhappiness about pay: 

  • “Does more pay and less work count as an answer? Maybe go back to the Yes, Minister world where Sir Humphrey types pull all the strings? Joking.”
  • “Compared with the private sector, there is a significant step down on the pay scale. These jobs require an inordinate amount of work, time and emotional energy, as well as training, but aren’t fairly compensated. It is amazing how one’s inner security and physical health can be tied to a pay cheque.” 

5. The work

But there was also an abundance of incisive, practical wishes for making the whole business of government work better:

  • “I would ask for compulsory challenge i.e. red teaming, being forced to write down all a policy’s weaknesses, preferably done by people with separate line management (possibly from other departments on a rotating basis?) who are judged solely by their ability to criticise things cogently! That would improve decision-making.” 
  • “Shrink the government’s consultancy budget by about 75% and actually invest in the civil servant workforce so they have the expertise the government claims it needs to buy externally. And end the erosion of technical and project management skills in the public sector. How do so many public funded projects come in over budget and schedule?”
  • “My wish would be the same if I was still working in a corporate environment – that people seek more ways to work across their various departments, and less so within them. We are too busy running around, and don’t bring together different perspectives even internally because that takes more time and makes things more complicated. But that means we aren’t acknowledging how interconnected a business public policy is.”  

What can we conclude?

Overall, the picture that emerges is of staff harried and frustrated by a heavy workload and a lack of recognition for their efforts – whether that’s in the form of public acknowledgment or in cold hard pay cheques.

But the picture’s other aspect is a determination, sometimes grumbling, sometimes stoical, often zealous, to get done the things that matter. Because there is no escaping that this work matters in a way that most jobs don’t. And among these civil servants there is a desire not just to do the work, but to do it better and more imaginatively; not just to steady the ship but to make people’s lives easier, healthier and more fulfilled.

As our final voice put it: “We can change the world, we can save our climate, the environment and society if we get together and use our creativity, our craftsmanship, our entrepreneurship to accelerate the implementation of sustainable innovations right now. No delay, no excuses, just do it!

About the author

Alex Starritt is editor of Apolitical, the global network for innovative public servants, where a version of this article first appeared

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OneGov (not verified)

Submitted on 31 January, 2017 - 19:14
Some of this I agreed with but would be interested to know when the questions were asked. Here is my five: 1. Job security 2. A office within 50 miles or less expectation that it's ok to insist staff to travel 50 plus miles to work because they want to rationalise the estate. 3. Pay in line with the workload and conditions outlined in one and two. 4. Not to be a political football - We are easy whipping boys/girls for all the political parties which in turn leads members of the public to think it is Ok to be rude and at times aggressive. 5. Less messing with terms and conditions - Change was necessary yes but the level of change would have nor been acceptable in a private company so why would it for the public services.

Susan2 (not verified)

Submitted on 1 February, 2017 - 14:41
Well said OneGov. I wasn't aware questions were being asked either ... was it a case of its the views of the chosen few, not the masses that count? And I think my wishes would be pretty much the same as yours, perhaps with just the addition of some parity between expenses at SCS level and the 'front line' level. I've read in the papers this morning about some huge payments for top SCS's housing and we have to submit two forms, through four departments to get a cup of coffee for a course!

Rick Aston (not verified)

Submitted on 1 February, 2017 - 13:27
About point 4 on OneGov's comments, i for one will not accept any type of shouting, abuse, threats etc, other bodies like dentists, doctors, specsavers, etc.. will not accept abuse, they ban those people from their premises and so should we, i terminate ALL abusive calls after warning the person i'm going to do so, and put it in ucb template...

OneGov (not verified)

Submitted on 1 February, 2017 - 19:13
Me too - it is the increasing frequency and level of abuse that causes most concern.

not telling you... (not verified)

Submitted on 1 February, 2017 - 13:32
As mentioned by OneGov I agree with much of this but where, when and who were these questions asked of? I'd like to see leaders who lead and not afraid to explain to ministers exactly what we do, how hard the job is, how hard we strive to acheive and then explain why we need a pay rise and no more changes to T&Cs. I'd suggest an idependant review of all the estates rationalisation plans or in a few years time some of us will be able to say we told you so when all corporate knowledge has been lost and we're competing for new staff with Home Bargins etc.

Secret One (not verified)

Submitted on 2 February, 2017 - 08:57
I would agree with all of these points, and the further points made by OneGov. Going further, or rather as a foundation to everything else, I would like to see the Civil Service, even including Hmrc, providing a safe & healthy workplace for everyone. That includes taking decisive and committed action to rid the place of a toxic bullying culture which has allows the behaviour of some to go unchecked. They say they have zero tolerance of such misconduct but their actions do not match the words. Covering up such matters, and further targeting the survivors of abuse for having courage to speak up, would suggest to the average person that they actually condone bullying.

Winston Smith (not verified)

Submitted on 9 February, 2017 - 14:35
Can I add a sixth? For politicians of whatever stripe to let go of the rug...

Anonymous (not verified)

Submitted on 10 February, 2017 - 14:15
its interesting to read what drives civil servants and I welcome such articles. I was struck by the opening of such an article with gradest and hierarchical comments such as this "from the very top of institutions and international organisations right down to the people on the frontline in their neighbourhoods" This is one of the thing is would most like to change. The inference that those of us doing the work on the front line are in some way less significant and beneath those at the top is divisive and not that of an engaging employer and maybe then what drives some of the things wished for. If I were seen more as an equal and with more of an equal voice would I be able to drive that change I have so long been hoping for that would improve my work production/satisfaction/efficiency etc.! would I receive the recognition that is deserved of those at the frontline producing the outputs, meeting customers needs and as highlighted in the comments the abusive from the frustrated few. I so often hear that we no long work in a gradest organisation but with language such as this I am not so sure.

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