Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Blasphemer in the temple of the State and philosophical musings

Ok, confession.  I am a ........wheeze................public servant.  I suck taxpayers' money and assist politicians.

In a perfect world, I would not be a public servant.  It wrangles with my taxpayer accountability principles, and I find myself ranting on an hourly basis against yet another law passed under urgency, or yet another highly paid project manager sitting on bottomless funding because she intimidated the minister with her large and imposing bone tiki hairclip and she ranted in te reo.  I find myself suppressing dangerous tendancies when ministers haul me into their offices at short notice, and yell and scream at me before realising the useless private secretary summoned the wrong policy manager.  I voice out loud how I would like to sell my share of the America's Cup/RWC/state-owned assets contribution, and what I would do with the money.  And I get murderously angry when useless private secretaries with no experience whatsoever stab me in the back to cover their sycophantic uselessness.  And I can only grit my teeth into a powder because "Yes Minister" is more alive and kicking under National than it ever was.

I consoled myself when I entered the public service with the thought that I could create a more libertarian New Zealand from the inside.  Hah!  Deluded and naive for such a deeply intelligent woman.  Perhaps I was drunk that night. 
In October last year, having only been back in the workforce for 4 months after 2 years as a stay-at-home mum, and hating every second of being a taxpayer-sucking policy analyst, I unexpectedly became the manager of the policy team.  I was slightly apprehensive - management is my area of expertise, not policy, and the combination scared me, as did the speed of the ascension - but I was very excited at the prospect of being a manager.

I have to say, much to my surprise, coordinating the lives of 3 boys at home has actually made me a better leader than I used to be pre-children, in that I am more confident of what I want, I communicate things much more clearly, and I ensure I get people's support, and they get mine, before charging on with something controversial.  Perhaps the life challenge of the past 18 months has contributed to this greater maturity as well.  This all sounds very basic and obvious when I read it, but, in my earlier manager roles, these were the very things that freaked me out.  I used to prefer the "lock-self-in-office-and-all-my-problems-will-resign" style.  No wonder I struggled.  Maturity and motherhood has made an impact on my professional development that I didn't envisage.

And I'm loving it.

One of the first principles I chose to follow when I took on the manager's role was to instigate a more libertarian approach to management, and thereby stealthily encourage libertarian thought in the development of policy and advice to the minister.

I'm fortunate that my staff are all highly intelligent, highly ambitious, and open and honest, and all sit in the preferred area of the political paradigm.  This wasn't always the case - the team I inherited was unmotivated, frustrated, there were divisions in the team, dishonest discussions between the manager and staff, and the quality of advice was poor and taken from the perspective of "government must save people, and government will decide when the people are ready to be saved". 

So, when I came on board, we decided to think less like public servants and more like taxpayers looking for accountability, innovation, and value for money.  We quickly realised we could have some fun with this, and it would actually need less than our budget appropriation.  We now relish identifying pockets of innovation and working with international research institutions, who do all the work and we take the findings; we have developed a bottom up strategic plan rather than a  strategic plan that exists to justify an organisation's existence; the staff create and manage their own objectives, tasks and assignments.  I merely give them the resources and mentoring to make it happen. And we involve the private sector, NGOs and academia in an effort to take services out of government, make it consumer-demand driven or it doesn't exist, and force people to take ownership for their own lives.

This extends to the performance appraisal process, which, within the confines of departmental and public sector rules, we practice what we preach.  It is  honest, open, and focused on personal ownership, rather than relying on the traditional concept of a "manager" to get things done, and everyone is a part of their colleague's appraisal, or performance improvement process.  And, just to gloat, there has been an astounding improvement in the quality of work and the attitude of the team.

For some context, when I started, one individual was a struggling devoted unionist.  I decided the only way I could manage this situation was to be true to myself, rather than pandering to membership choices to force me to hold on to a poor performer.  If the union wanted to "discuss" something with me, bring it on.  Now, through this libertarian approach to management and policy development, this individual is thriving.  And they have finally understood the pride that comes with a personal turnaround because they realised that if they didn't take responsibility for their own career, they would ship themselves out.  Their performance was a nuisance to me, but was not my problem because I could get rid of it; it was their problem if they wanted to stay.  They saw the light.

This same individual ranted recently:
"The Union is not in the best interests of staff - a bunch of self serving red underpants wearing sycophants paying lip service to their own purpose. They get in the way - kick up a fuss - provide bad advice to staff to serve their own agenda and fail to get anything useful out of it. Indeed their failure to provide advice to me probably served me better in the long run."
One lesson that has guided me enormously was one that was demonstrated to me early last year, when I was despondent and feeling destitute after a marriage gone wrong and no money.  I never begged for the money, but I did hint in a blog that I was feeling useless and worthless and was losing hope.  In the space of 3 days, a fellow blogger had galvanised the beautiful people in blogland and I suddenly had enough money to pull together a suit to score the above mentioned role, and messages of support and love that I could slip into my handbag and refer to when urgently required. 

The lesson that I seem to have taken from that overwhelming experience is compassion.  It has enabled me to relate to those who have a reporting line to me not as "my staff" but as equals.  They too are seeking happiness, trying to avoid suffering, they too have known sadness, and despair, they too are seeking to fulfil their needs, and they too are learning about life.

This lesson has been an epiphany for me personally and professionally, and has been instrumental in enabling me to be a much better person than I ever was.  I now volunteer my time and finances to organisations and individuals who I once would never have taken a second glance.  Now, I see hope, determination, and dignity, and I wonder what took me so long to see this lesson.

(And if you were one of those beautiful people, from the bottom of my heart, thank you again.)

Naturally, I am not going to divulge where I work.  And, if our approach works, my team and I will have worked ourselves out of a job within the next 5 years.  Sadly, the portfolio tends to be politically driven to hope for a wind up any earlier than that.

I searched far and wide for a decent book on libertarian management or leadership.  While there are a few lauded theorists, Drucker apparently the most popular, a lot of what I've implemented in my team is actually made up, based on my interpretation of basic libertarian thinking and common sense.

I would love to do a Masters degree on something like this, but with a full time job, and 3 boys aged 6, 4 and 2,  that's not going to happen any time soon.  In the meantime, does anyone have any recommended bedtime reading as an alternative?

1 comment:

Oswald Bastable said...

Actually, I support more libertarian -leaning folks in the public service.

That is the only way we will get a change there!