on public service.
So, lately, I’ve been ruminating on what it means to be a public servant.*
At work, I recently had our role described to me as to deliver, and only to deliver, on the priorities and commitments and whims of the elected government of the day. Advocacy was explicitly ruled out as part of our job description.
I joked to my partner the other day that I miss being a public servant, rather than a Minister’s slave. The perils of working in the bureaucracy mean that I am a tiny cog in a colossal machine, one that’s operated by the collective of those who are brave (or asinine) enough to run for political office and lucky (or unfortunate) enough to win. We do not get to call the shots, only to execute them.
That’s not to say public servants have absolutely no sway or influence, no — on paper, our job is to provide ‘frank and fearless’ advice. At the end of the day, though, and particularly in light of cuts to the public service and political shifts in how we govern, our hands are increasingly tied. It’s suffocating, and often, it does seem like the only savvy option is to put your head down, compromise and just get the busy work done.
Here’s the thing, though: I’ve had to be an advocate since the very first day I walked into this place. At times, for myself — meaningful task assignments, salary negotiations, promotions. Often, for other women of colour, too — cultural safety initiatives, or even just a tiny fucking acknowledgement from leadership that there is something desperately wrong in our workplace. And of course, for our policy beneficiaries, in all the tiny ways I have failed but still tried to challenge the ways of thinking that we have institutionalised; push us away from language that frames communities as problems; and call attention to evidence about what really matters to the people we serve.
The spirit of advocacy is at the heart of my public service as matter of survival. I do not have a choice, because if I don’t stand my ground, negotiate, be demanding, exercise tiny strategies of resistance — well. The costs would be phenomenal. I would lose myself in this job. Other women of colour, who have less institutional power than me, would continue to get hurt. More significantly, I would be condoning and enabling bad policy, the kind that disproportionately affects the communities that I belong to.
I advocate not because I am optimistic about change; that would be naive. No, I’ve had to learn how to be a pain in the ass because I don’t think I can afford not to. I cannot accept the status quo, because my family, my peers — we are not okay.
Honestly, it’d be a fucking luxury to be able to go to work and not wonder, constantly, when I’m going to hit the ceiling, because I am already one of very few women of colour at my level, and there are even fewer above me.
I’d give anything to be the kind of bureaucrat who can see public service just as a goddamn job, no skin in the game — the kind that can afford to see advocacy or activism as dirty words, or the community sector’s role, because they’ve never had to defend their own rights. “Multicultural Affairs”, supporting access to culturally appropriate services and racial justice, as a nine-to-five and not every moment of my existence. A meaningful career pathway that will have positive impacts upon others but look, if we don’t achieve desired outcomes, we’ll still be okay.
So, to all you senior public officials, and the other folk out there who think the job is to shut up and just deliver: advocacy will never not be part of my work. Good luck supervising me, I guess.
*I’ve also been sitting with the fact that Queen Elizabeth II, born into wealth and power, overseer of ongoing colonial violence, is being eulogised as a tireless public servant — but more on that another time, maybe?