Passion and the public servant

Richard Langereis

Leaving aside its meanings in relation to love and lovemaking, passion has for a long time had a pretty bad press, mostly being represented as an inability to control strong emotions – sometimes leading to rage and even mania. Passion gets a better press these days – often being lauded as an essential prerequisite for success – but it’s not a quality one immediately associates with the public sector. Indeed, I would dare say that many public servants treat passion with some suspicion – agreeing with poet Alexander Pope’s assessment of nearly four centuries ago that whatever form it takes, it ‘conquers reason’.

Pope’s view was based on the ancient moral philosophers and is still widely held, but I prefer the attitude of his near contemporary, the philosopher David Hume, who reflected that the impulse to action required passion and could not be provided by reason alone. Of course, the corollary of this is that reason cannot prevent passionate and ‘imprudent’ actions but my observations of history and more than thirty years in the public sector convince me that, although some of the public sector’s more ‘imprudent’ actions may have resulted from too much passion and not enough reason, positive change and reform is only ever possible when driven by people who are genuinely passionate about improving the way things work.

Indeed, in my view, passion is not just as a necessary spur to action but an essential quality for creating a public sector that is able to engage with a dynamic operating environment in which the rate of change is ever increasing. Reason will always remain the public sector’s mainspring because it is required to manage the practical and complex realities of legislation, regulation, administration, service delivery and economy. However, reason is perhaps too often made the rationale for staying with the known and avoiding the difficult realities created by change.

Human history is full of examples of societies lapping up the benefits of change and ignoring the steady accumulation of its adverse impacts – until a crisis is reached. In Australia, our natural resources will probably shelter us from the worst of external financial shocks, but governments are facing growing expectations from their citizens to facilitate the provision of health, education, transport, welfare and security services in a time when reducing the ‘burden’ of government taxes and payments is the prevailing mantra. With available resources diminishing in relation to increasing citizen demand, the public sector is going to need people who are passionate about many aspects of their work to resolve the resulting tensions.

Passion will need to be directed at improving workforce productivity, finding innovative solutions to expensive problems and building a culture of continuous improvement for public sector processes. To get the best ideas, the public sector will need to be more passionate about creating opportunities for wide-ranging internal discussions – perhaps even encouraging a culture of entrepreneurship in which officers with the necessary passion and skills are encouraged to act as catalysts to combine people, expertise and knowledge in new concepts and ways of working.

Despite apparent delays, it appears that Australia will end up adopting a more collaborative form of government/citizen engagement. Passion is going to be required to look beyond prevailing paradigms and build a public sector that is more flexible and responsive to citizen needs.

It is common to see the public sector’s processes of reason veer towards solutions that favour stasis or minimal change – often because governments are afraid of stakeholders who have the power to ensure sensationalist and often adversarial responses to promote their self interest. Passion will be needed as a necessary means of promoting initiatives in the face of this multifaceted stakeholder self interest.

Of course, this can never be accomplished through the mere fervent expression of belief in the need for a course of action. To overcome stakeholder cynicism, passion will be needed to build convincing, effective narratives based on detailed, evidence-based reasoning to explain rationales for action in ways that citizens find meaningful.

This will, in turn, require a passion for transparency to change the public sector’s long-held, patronising belief in its right to determine what information is suitable for public consumption. As taxpayers, citizens are government’s customers and we need to change the current ‘government knows best’ philosophy to one in which information vital to the working of our society is used by government not just to inform citizens of the options available to them but also to enable citizens to make informed decisions about those options.

Some reading this may be thinking that the kind of change I am describing and the passion necessary to make it work are inconsistent with the public sector’s traditional role of impartially serving the government of the day. Indeed, some may consider me at best a starry-eyed idealist and at worst, a raving loony.

Taking a step back myself, I would be forced to say that passion needs careful management if it is to be effective. As a public servant of more than thirty years, I would not still be a public servant if I had not been able to temper my passion with large dollops of patience. Enduring the many situations which may try a public servant’s equanimity – times of organisational stasis or uncertainty, projects left by the wayside despite passionate beginnings or policy reversals based on political expedience rather than evidence – will certainly require the exercise of patience if one is to continue in the public sector.

Passion will be tough for some and perhaps it’s not for everybody, but the model of a completely dispassionate public service seems to me the conception of a rapidly fading past. Although it will need to be tempered with patience and informed by reason, passion will most certainly be needed for effectively managing the many changes confronting the public sector. My own advice would be to get passionate about something. Manage it with reason and patience and you never know what new horizons may open up.

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