Three years as a civil servant
It had been a while since I moved from private to public sector, and today, after three years, I’m no longer a civil servant. In these years I’ve learned many things about public administration, and that allowed me to generate a diagnosis about the performance of some Chilean’s institutions.
During this time I saw the operation from two perspectives. First, from an interministerial institution that seeks to generate cultural changes to recognize and solve the government’s challenges collaboratively with citizens. And second, from an institution that manages and sets an administrative framework in the purchases made by public institutions.
One is in charge of open and meets the state to citizens, and the other regulate and facilitate the purchases. In these two places that I worked, both operate actively with other institutions and civil servants. This dynamic allowed me to tie experiences and broadly understand the operation of these services.
To write this, I waited a few weeks to see with distance my path and put my learnings onto a scheme. My idea is not to point a specific institution, but make radiography about the services facing the people around this country.
The public administration’s challenges have deep roots, and this post is merely an apex. My notes wrap-up four breaks that go from the domestic and operative issues that teams have, to strategic points like the purpose of an institution.
Roles, responsibilities, and sanctions
The first thing that strikes a public service is the lack of clarity about the civil servant’s role. Despite the specific tasks given to each person, it is widespread to see the ambiguity about who might be in charge of the strategic decisions. There are responsible, but they’re full in meetings and therefore not capable of guiding the projects to achieve deadlines. Then, the leadership belongs to those with more character, empowered, and with the conviction to push the initiatives. This situation generates a bunch of lazy workers that get benefits from this lack.
While the stakeholders are off, the projects progress to a frozen stage and out of sight. No ones know what lefts, who worked last, or what will happen once it takes back. If it makes a return, the teams, goals, and the resources assigned are not the same. The job done is not viable, so let’s start again.
At the same time, the mechanisms of sanction are not efficient. The mistakes made by servants have no significant costs, except those projects that are strategic for the institution and where attention is full. Some built solutions are never implemented, and the consequences or those losses resources is zero. The workplace’s mood becomes passive, and then no one really cares about the outcomes because “nobody hurts.” The idea of lazy workers is not entirely correct, many of them are discouraged due to years of work without implementing adequate solutions.
Unlike the private sector, where in theory the investor invest in a profitable project and bad decisions return high losses, the desire for well-done work in the public area depends on personal motivation, and money is never scarce.
All the solutions that I see implemented passed through evaluation. But evaluations focused on results instead of impacts at the level of user experiences. The times and resources assigned meet the plan, but the primary goal does not necessarily have a relation to the final outcome. There is a risk to design an answer that gives no response and create new obstacles. When this logic persists, the solutions stack and tread down the previous one until reaching a point where the dependency is off of sight. Setting new wires has a tremendous cost, and therefore the future initiatives are shy and propose only cosmetic changes.
Successful solutions are mainly managed in-house. There is more control in crucial components like decisions, consequences, and mitigations. While fewer stakeholders hold the project, better is the result.
The lack of standard and intersectoral coordination generate two significant issues. Times and efforts. First, the resolutive cooperation regarding system integration is not fostered, it can follow weeks arguing about which must obey the rules of which system. And second, the uncoordinated work produces useless efforts because of different teams working in the same solution. It’s easy to find people doing precisely the same crossing the street.
Without a knowledge administration, the future initiatives unknown the learnings of past projects and start from the beginning. That learning is not passed among areas, and then it stays just in some people’s experience. When employees come in and out, the practice turns into a situation, and the new ones are victims of this deficit. The result is visible when projects have absurds times that might be more efficient.
The political career
The projects might have different origins, some are vertical of actions that are given by the government and its program, others are responses to alliances where Chile is inserted, and have a direct relationship with the institution’s operation, others are strategic for the institution because improve the process of itself, and finally there are the personal actions.
The first three have understandable reasons, and they do not depend on one person will, beyond the power positions that stakeholders have. But the lasts, the personal actions, are only to benefit a particular owner. And those are abundant. Generally, they have no specific goal and, once that the solution is created, serve only as an artifact to stimulate new political scenarios.
In a country where the government administration is two years to do, and two years to show, is prevalent to find projects that have no more aspiration than surface changes. Those projects are merely dialogue activators that allow politicians to move from different positions of power. It’s not a coincidence that they are named by people’s name.
Efforts put in these designs are maybe the root of the previous two ideas. To satisfy the career of politicians, the institution’s role and its functions disappear. The public services remain available to those who want to ascent and serve as a trampoline. All areas end up competing to release as soon as possible, and the motivated servants resigned.
An egocentric state
From this dynamic, the institutions operate specific functions for specific problems, and they don’t work in an integrated way to activate coordinated tools that face different scenarios. The state’s gaze focuses on itself, and it’s not capable of correcting itself. It is able to diagnosticate what happens surrounding, but not to take actions.
If a citizen wants to open a business, acquire a government house, or apply for a scholarship to study abroad, is the person who needs to dive among all the institutions in charge to find an answer, not the other way.
When a short-term government executes its program in four years, it can only be expected responses after the catastrophe. The best (and the worse by far) is what happened with SENAME (National Service of Younger). It is an example clearly presented by Patricia Muñoz from Defensoría de la Niñez (Childhoodness defense)
The public administration is not easy at all but is urgent to activate cultural changes that guide the job of institutions toward a service centered in people’s daily tasks instead of groups of power from those who work inside.
I don’t believe the solution goes by deleting the political career, but by generating a system that is able to heal itself and operate systemically without depending on the president agenda.
The United Kingdom is running an excellent initiative by designing public services as a platform where the responses work coordinately, and then, distinguishing service patterns to provide tools for all the scenarios. The labor is driven by a ministerial department that understands the systemic thinking as a component for all those who participate in the public sector.
Working in challenges like this was an incredible experience. I learned about public administration, I met great people, critics of our work, and willing to test new ideas. There are many myths and truths about civil servants. A big group of people is working to improve the operation of institutions. Others are facing harsh realities and still keep going and managing themselves. And there are a bunch of lazy and opportunists that damage the system. It’s difficult to understand the logic behind the public sector, especially from the political dimension and how this is situated at the core of many projects, but still, I hope soon to work again in challenges of this scale.