The Straw Man: Angela Majic on Public Service Sector Renewal

In the most recent version of Optimum Online Angela Majic writes a response to my piece entitled “Generation Y Challenges the Public Service” (which is itself a transcript of a speech I gave to the Association of Professional Executives in May of 2007)

Unfortunately, Ms Majic’s comments say very little about my article. At best her critiques are either aimed at arguments I don’t make, or inadvertently confirm the arguments I do make. At its worst her piece is a case study in why public service renewal may indeed be far off.

Take, for example, one of her opening sentences:

“One gets the impression from his comments that Gen Yers may be frustrated by the dominance of Baby Boomers.”

This however, is not the case. There was very little in my talk about intergenerational conflict or frustration with boomers. What my talk did focus on was challenging the assumptions that many of us hold about the Public Service and to outline the growing gap between the culture of the public service and that of younger (and all) Canadians.

There is frustration – but it isn’t directed at boomers. It is directed at organizational structures and modes of thinking that increasingly hamper public servants. My arguments aren’t generational. Indeed the problems outlined affect Gen Yers (who are simply unsure about the Public Service), as much as they do Boomers (many of whom tell me they are howling in their cubicles). Indeed, what makes Gen Y important is that they are growing up in a world of labour scarcity and may not tolerate howling in a cubicle. They’ll simply turn their back on the public service and seek opportunities elsewhere.

After misleading readers about both the purpose and substance of my article, Ms. Majic then launches into a spirited defense of “experience” and the need for “intergenerational dialogue.”

“Going to school longer is not necessarily the same thing as being better educated. While one cannot deny the benefits of formal learning, and the fact that educational qualifications are crucial to being able to function effectively in a knowledge-based economy, experience can be a great teacher. At the risk of restating the obvious, people who are older have more experience…

…Only through a genuine dialogue that respects the abilities, knowledge and talents of all parties can we hope to bridge the often mentioned, yet seldom understood, “generation gap” in the workplace.”

Sadly there is nothing in my talk that suggests I’m opposed to either experience or dialogue, nor did I suggest at any point that education was alone sufficient to fulfill every role in the public service. Indeed, my invitation to APEX was extended in order to prompt that dialogue – by sharing with executives (mostly boomers, with some Xers) the perspective of Yers and younger Xers.

So I’m neither opposed to dialogue or experience. However, I am opposed to unstated and strongly held assumptions that cause us to misunderstand a situation or engage in faulty analysis. In addressing this part of my talk, Ms. Majic fails to tackle my argument. Responding to my comment that that the insular nature of the Public Service should be measured against that of other sectors (such as the non-profit and private sector)  as opposed to the Public Sector of the past she states:

As for the supposed insularity of the public service, there may be some truth to a particular ethos pervading throughout any organization over time, but that may be over-stated. The federal public service today generally is more representative of linguistic duality, has more women employees, and has more visible minorities.

There are two things worth noting here. First, Ms Majic’s basis for comparison is the Public Service of yesterday. however, when I’m choosing a place of employment and wish to gauge how open it is to new ideas I don’t compare it to how it was 20 years ago, I compare it to the other organizations I could work for today. In my talk I joke that only an insular culture would make itself, 20 years ago, the benchmark for insularity. Sadly, Ms. Majic does just that.

Second, Ms. Majic’s argument presumes that increasing racial and linguistic diversity limits insularity. There is no doubt that it can help. However, she misses the thrust of my argument: namely that the strength and influence of a corporate culture should not be underestimated. The Public Services’ lifelong system of employment means its employees grow up within the system and adopt its norms, values and assumptions – regardless of their background, race, language or other trait. I quote Jim Collins for a reason. His research shows that corporate cultures are incredibly powerful in their capacity to both reject and eject those who think differently. Insularity is not a function your background, it is a function of culture.

This is not just a issue for the public service – every organization must grapple with this problem. The difference is that virtually every other organization (private and non-profit) experiences a higher rate of turnover, often across all levels. This means new ideas and perspectives that can test organizational assumptions flow into the system on a regular basis. Within the public service this occurs less frequently. Fewer outsiders come in, especially at the EX level. Consequently, the system simply has more careerist who have often only known a life in the public service – especially in its mid-level and senior ranks. This is unprecedented among organizations in Canada today.

So the public service may be less insular than 20 years ago… but does it matter to Gen Y? No. The real issue is how insular the public service is in relations to other organizations today. Here the situation is less rosy.

I’d also like to step back and share an observation. I’ve now given this and similar speeches at several government retreats and conferences and have noticed an emerging trend. Frequently after I give a talk the Boomers and Gen Yers in the audience approach me to thank me for articulating what they’ve been thinking and to share stories and engage me further. The Boomers often talk of how they know the system needs (dramatic) reform and how they hope that they can change it before they leave (or that their mass departure will help prompt its reform). Gen Yers also react positively – “you know me better than I know myself” – one recently commented. But they also confide in me that they are only starting out on their career and that most believe they will not stay in the public service for too much longer anyway, so these challenges don’t feel overwhelming.

Those most predisposed to be frustrated are the Gen Xers. It’s not hard to see why. This is the cohort that has only recently begun moving into the EX category. As such it is the group with the most invested in the current system and with the most to lose if the rules of the game are changed. It is Xers – like Ms. Majic (not the Boomers as everyone suspects) who are often the strongest defenders of the status quo. Take for example the three arguments in Ms. Majic’s article: experience trumps everything; government is not insular; and hierarchical and top-down systems are “time-tested” and good – each is a defense of the status quo.

This bodes ill for those who expect radical reform to occur when the Boomers retire. But it also points to an important short coming of current reform efforts. Gen Xers are an important – nay critical – group within the public service. They are the emerging leaders and so occupy a vital role role within the bureaucracy. Without their support, reform will be at best difficult, at worst, impossible. Consequently, any program of reform is going to have to meet and address their legitimate fears and concerns. If not, then the public service really could end up with intergenerational conflict in its midst.

2 thoughts on “The Straw Man: Angela Majic on Public Service Sector Renewal

  1. Jeremy Vernon

    This reminds of a similar discussion I was having with some fellow political science students.

    I essentially asserted that much of complications in intergenerational dialogue occurs because frustration of Generation Xers at the staggering change that occurred in their lifetime.

    Baby Boomers were the primary leaders and GenXers were largely left out of the equation because there were enough Boomers to handle the tasks.

    Now that Gen Yers are inheriting the system constructed by Boomers the Gen Xers are fighting hard to leave their mark on the system as it, more or less, gets divvied up amongst two generations rather than handed down sequentially.

    Gen Xers have to use whatever differentiating features they can to assume a position of leadership rather than partnership.

    I heartily agree that the real substantive debate is between Xers and Yers.

    Reply
  2. Jeremy Vernon

    This reminds of a similar discussion I was having with some fellow political science students.I essentially asserted that much of complications in intergenerational dialogue occurs because frustration of Generation Xers at the staggering change that occurred in their lifetime.Baby Boomers were the primary leaders and GenXers were largely left out of the equation because there were enough Boomers to handle the tasks. Now that Gen Yers are inheriting the system constructed by Boomers the Gen Xers are fighting hard to leave their mark on the system as it, more or less, gets divvied up amongst two generations rather than handed down sequentially.Gen Xers have to use whatever differentiating features they can to assume a position of leadership rather than partnership.I heartily agree that the real substantive debate is between Xers and Yers.

    Reply

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