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April 23, 2024

What makes for a good civil servant?

Civil servants are an easy target for those who sit outside of government but are often directly impacted by the actions (or inactions) of those same civil servants. There was a time, long since forgotten, when a system of work shadowing was encouraged to promote better understanding across the sectors. Now we are reduced to second guessing why things happen as they do. From a distance, it seems that parts of the civil service are highly stressed and functioning much less well than they used to. If that’s true, then this is offered in the spirit of wanting to help.

Sandra Naranjo Bautista

  • The problem: Public servants are always juggling many things at the same time. It’s common to feel out of balance.
  • Why it matters: One of the main motivators to join the public sector is to serve, but you won’t be able to be your best self if you are always reacting to things.
  • The solution: Incorporating daily habits into your routine can help you stay grounded, motivated, and more productive. Here are five that can help.

Are you struggling to find a balance between work and your personal life? Have you felt you can give more but you are always dealing with urgent matters that leave the important stuff aside? Even worse, are you thinking about joining the quiet-quitting club? In this blog, you’ll find 5 simple, powerful and effective daily habits that you can build into your routine to become the public servant you’ve always wanted to be.

In the public sector, it’s common to deal with many urgencies at the same time, and being able to take initiative might be harder than it sounds.

Be proactive

When I was a little, my dad told us the kids’ version of ‘A Message to Garcia’, a widely distributed essay by Elbert Hubbard. This story exemplifies for me an ideal civil servant, what we all should aspire to be.

The story is about President McKinley, who in the middle of the war between the US and Spain needed to communicate with the leader of the insurgents. Garcia was somewhere in Cuba. Someone told him about a soldier called Rowan, who would find Garcia if anybody could. Rowan took the letter, asked no questions, and delivered the message. Hubbard ends the story like this:

“My heart goes out to the man who does his work when his boss is away as well as when he is at home. The man when given a letter to Garcia, quietly takes the missive, without asking any idiotic questions and with no lurking intention of chucking it into the nearest suer or of doing odd else but deliver it. Civilisation is just one long anxious search for such individuals. Anything such a man asks will be granted, his kind is so rare, that no employer can afford to let him go. He is wanted in every city, town and village. In every office, shop, store and factory. The world cries out for such. He is needed and needed badly, the man who can carry a message to Garcia.” Elbert Hubbard

‘A Message to Garcia’ is about being the kind of person that makes things happen. The one that makes the right questions, to the right people and gets the job done.

In the public sector, it’s common to deal with many urgencies at the same time, and being able to take initiative might be harder than it sounds. One way to break this cycle is to anticipate needs and act on them. In other words, trying to stay ahead of the game. How to do it? Being up to date with the news will give you a sense of the political agenda. Notice the events, speeches, and interviews where the authorities of your organisation intervene. It will give you a sense of their priorities. Identify repeated problems in your department, try to find the root cause of the problem, and work on possible solutions.

My dad used to tell us, my sisters and I, always find a solution for every problem, not a problem for every solution. It has been a mantra in my life, so I share his teachings in case it helps you too.

Set daily goals

This is a game changer! If you have an endless to-do list, it’s time to prioritise. Otherwise, you risk doing a lot, but not necessarily the things that are more strategic or important for you.

I like to set my three priorities for the week first. Then I break those into manageable daily tasks and prioritise three per day. I commit to finishing them before attempting to start something new. Those three tasks anchor my day. The rest of the activities or tasks when done are a plus, but I start with my priorities first.

What I’ve learned is that if I don’t do this, I’m very quickly answering everyone’s priorities but mine.

Put your health first

I know it sometimes feels like there is no time for personal care, but if you don’t prioritise your health no one else will!

You know your health priorities better than anyone. Try to put those clearly and then start with a few, simple actions, that you can easily incorporate into your routine. The trick here is to start simple. If you don’t, you might not start at all. For example, you end up doing no workout, because you’re waiting to have an hour to do it properly. And, well… between work, kids, the house, etc. that hour never came.

A few ideas of simple steps. Drink plenty of water, eat healthier, prioritise sleep – try going to bed 10 minutes earlier – perhaps use the stairs instead of the elevator or take a five-minute break to walk, enjoy looking at the trees, or just listening to your favourite song without doing anything else.

You need time to recharge yourself. Writer Anne Lamott said it best: “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”

Talk with your colleagues

Being successful in the public sector requires collaboration. Within your department and with other areas. It’s impossible to move things forward in isolation. Make time to talk with your colleagues, it doesn’t have to be about work all the time. Build relationships, learn about what others are doing, and ask genuine questions. Not only will you learn a lot, but you’ll also build relationships that will make you a better person and professional. It’s easier to work with someone you like and trust.

Fuel your brain in the right way

Devote time to read and learn about the areas you work on and are interested in. If you’re rolling your eyes because you don’t have time (I get that), why not try making the time?

You can read a short blog, like this one, perhaps listen to a podcast during your commute, or read a good article. Starting small is sometimes the best way to start.

Something that has worked for me is to have a minimum progress rule. On those days that it seems you can hardly have time to breathe, I read at least one page (or its equivalent). It is not always the progress I would like to make, but even small progress is better than none.

A work in progress

Being a highly effective civil servant is always a work in progress. We fail, we try again. Every day is an opportunity to be the best versions of ourselves. Five ways that might help you in that journey are taking the initiative, being clear on your daily priorities, prioritising your health, making time to talk with your colleagues, and fuelling your brain in the right way.