The Civil Servant Perspective

The Civil Servant Perspective

To begin with, one must explain the title of this blog and rather than representing the civil service as a whole I want to represent my perspective of the civil service. It is inspired by the title of The Hacker Perspective a quarterly article written by readers of 2600 Magazine that describes an individual’s own, and very specific view on what it means to be a hacker. Having said that, I do want readers to keep in mind that the perspective I present is one that I happen to know is shared to varying degrees among many of the other public sector workers and civil servants I am happy to count as colleagues and friends.

It is going on four weeks since I found myself in discussions with two people who both had interesting views on the work we do in the civil service. One a private sector worker who had an understandable naivety to the differences between the two; the latter someone who I perhaps gave far too much credit to their understanding of the mechanics of government, professional life and comprehension of my own ambitions and areas of expertise.

An example of the comments thrown at me include:

  • Being the cheapest form of labor in the country
  • Being the lowest rung of the professional ladder
  • We have the ability (and opportunity) to put our feet up between ninetofive before clocking-off
  • Work that doesn’t require inspiration, creativity or original cognition
  • We are solving problems that the private sector might solve trivially

Any public sector worker reading would perhaps take offence immediately if these statements weren’t as far away from the truth as they could be.

I work at Archives New Zealand and have worked at The National Archives in the UK. I am a software developer; I am a civil servant, public sector worker, researcher, analyst; however one wants to frame it. I’ve had my time in the private sector as a technical support analyst and software developer and it has served me well coming into this field.

My work involves the understanding and development of solutions that will aid in the preservation of born-digital records produced by government which have long-term business or archival value.

I am privileged to work where I do. A realization that only came to me recently on being introduced to a paper by colleague Cassie Findlay at The State Records Authority, New South Wales. While her paper discusses current imperfections in the system, the ultimate role of the archives is not passive as I once thought. They are central to preserving cultural heritage, a nations memory, and crucially they are central to democracy. Cassie describes the archives in Athens around 400 BC:

This archive housed the law, contracts, diplomatic records, court proceedings, and other records – even archiving the day’s art forms such as the plays of Sophocles and others. These were the raw materials of the first democracy, and they were open to any private citizen to access and make copies. The archive was watched over by the magistrate, or ‘archon’, hence our word ‘archive’. This indicates the extent to which the archive related directly to the law; the archive was the law, it provided the foundation from which power in society was wielded.

The importance of our work becomes even more prominent if we pay careful attention to the New Zealand Public Records Act (2005), Section 3 (c):

To enable the Government to be held accountable by—

  • (I) ensuring that full and accurate records of the affairs of central and local government are created and maintained; and
  • (ii) providing for the preservation of, and public access to, records of long-term value; and

For those with a deep seated belief in democracy; for those who understand the fragile link between power and responsibility; for activists who, in general, might not have a favourable opinion of government there cannot be a more powerful reason for the existence of a public body.

The mandates of other departments in the public sector are equally worthy. We sit within broader government departments or ministries and we form the backbone of a country and infrastructure that enables it to function effectively dayafterday and in perpetuity.

Discipline

Our daily work is naturally nine-to-five but my normal work mode is after hours when the world is at peace. Because of this, the most important thing I can be in my job – is disciplined. This requires an incredible amount of focus to work between the core daytime hours. 

There are myriad resources on the Internet that discuss digital preservation, the field I work in within Archives New Zealand. The challenge is in solving a problem that exists because of the transient nature of technology and the need for technology to address the concerns of the present and not the future. Digital preservation needs to look at the present, the future and the past. It requires traditional academic research practices, a well supported community, technical ecosystem and a huge amount of innovation, inspiration, and ingenuity from the people who work in it.

Together we’re archivists and librarians; historians, developers, hackers, inventors, multi-taskers, context-switchers, academics, and non-academics, and each of us are made up of parts of all of these. That means wherever we work, civil service or private sector we’re working far beyond a nine-to-five and a 37 hour week. We’re reading to constantly to keep up to date and we’re constantly thinking of how to solve new and emerging problems that we’re seeing from the past while keeping one eye on what’s likely to appear in the future.

It’s a challenge, and a problem that is ever-evolving, one that likely always to exist in one form or another. But that’s digital preservation specifically. Those in the public sector attempting to solve this problem also have to take care of other business.

Principles

As a public servant I am aware of a responsibility to the country and to the tax payer. The civil service doesn’t take this responsibility lightly. The layers of bureaucracy that the government and civil service might be known for in some circles are there for a reason. Bureaucratic processes are the checks and balances that ensure we’re always doing the best by the tax payer. Along with making sure that the civil service employs the top candidates for all jobs and disciplines, it ensures, much like the role of the archive, that we are accountable, we are responsible, and most importantly, that we’re democratic, representative and fair.

On top of these core responsibilities, I also feel it important to take extra care looking after my own specific principles. Something that I know others do as well – intuitively, but often discussed and questioned, in work hours and out of hours, beyond our nine-to-five as we seek to do the very best for ourselves and the departments or agencies that we work for. As such I will often ask a number of questions of myself and of the work I am doing:

  • Is this the most effective way to perform this task
  • Is it the best value for the public purse
  • Is the solution sustainable
  • Does it contribute to a community ecosystem

More subtly, I sometimes think back to friends, colleagues and the existing generations of individuals in my family and think would they approve of any decision I might make on a daily basis.

And I’ve been privileged to work with colleagues in the past who have similar principles, higher principles even. In New Zealand I continue to work with strong individuals who are under no shadow of a doubt that for all the layers of directorship and management on top of us, for those who report to managers that report to managers, the civil servant from the very lowest pay grade leads from the ground up as those above us lead from the top down.

But to conclude…

I don’t want to separate the civil service from any other walk of life. It’s all relative. Good people exist in all realms. The types of people I have spoken about and work with on a daily basis are all around us, in academia, in the private sector, in self-employment, in unemployment. One distinction might simply be that the civil service as it continues to exist has an obligation to consistently seek out these people in order to support the vitality and health of a country.

If the civil service seems slow or unresponsive, lacking in dynamism, or whatever else is perceived to external parties, it may very well be for good reason. I have experienced sluggishness surrounding my own requirements but appreciate it is always for a reason, as expressed above.

The civil service is a framework, and the skill of those brought into it like myself, and others with skills and from disciplines different to my own is working within this framework to deliver what they deliver – to the best quality, to the best of their abilities and in such a way that ensures a continuity from one generation of civil servant to the next.

Further reading:

The New Zealand Code of Conduct for the State Services and United Kingdom, Civil Service Values, further describe the role of civil servants and the principles we adhere to.