Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Unsung heroes

One of the comments on my previous post included some kind-hearted good wishes for the job search, and also some observations on the stigma attached to working in government.

Firstly, I can reassure you that the job search is long over. The Dear Aunt Agatha label is a flashback to five years ago, starting from when we landed in Canada. The distant relative and the letters are fictional, but the events themselves are drawn from my journals at that time and are an attempt to recapture our family experiences as new immigrants.

Of course, five years on, we are still a long way from shaking off the label of "newcomers".

But the other bit got me thinking (dangerous!) and it is true. There seems to be a worldwide stereotype of government workers as being lazy, incompetent, and set up for life.

Now, there are undoubtably examples to prove the rule, but my experience in my own corner of government is very different. I am but one tiny voice in a howling wilderness, but seeing as this is Public Service Week here in BC I cannot let the myths go unchallenged.

Job security first: having seen the effects of "workforce adjustment" over the last year let's put a dose of reality around this one.

Part one is easy: non-unionised management are no more secure than anyone in the private sector. Screw up...you're out. No longer needed...you're out. So if you rise in the ranks you can forget about security.

Part two: the union does try to look after the security of its members, but that has some unfortunate consequences. At the end of the day, if your position is redundant then somebody has to go. They'll do their best to find you somewhere else, i.e. a vacant position, but if you have seniority then you might end up displacing someone more junior. So in net terms, there is no more job security across the workforce as a whole than anywhere else. What happens is that the security is concentrated in the hands of the more long-term staff, and all the uncertainty is most cruelly heaped on the newcomers. This year we had people in an agony of suspense for months, knowing that their hold on their position was at risk and waiting to see how the dice would land.

As for "lazy", I have to laugh. I don't think I've ever worked with a harder-working group of people.

Before going any further, I should explain my stance on the term "lazy" to avoid misunderstanding. I suspect that many people, especially those who find themselves driven to work long evenings and weekends, will happily dismiss anyone not regularly turning in a 60+ hour week as lazy.

IMHO laziness has nothing to do with how many hours you clock on the job. It is about what you do with those hours. My own view is that regularly working insane hours is a sign of poor management, not something to be proud of, unless you've made a deliberate and informed choice to live your life that way.

Out here on the West coast, people generally have a deep respect for work/life balance. I don't think it is at all lazy to set boundaries around how much of your life work is allowed to encroach on, in order to leave time for...well...life.

But while you are at work, you are there to work and be productive.

My organisation runs the BC Provincial IT network. Lots of people rely on this network for things like 911 dispatch, getting welfare cheques, bringing criminal cases to trial, setting up emergency fire control centres during the fire season...lots of real-world health & welfare or life & limb dependencies.

In my building, people slog their guts out to keep things running. We've been crippled by cutbacks over the last year but none of the work has gone away. Everywhere I look people are busy. I often come home with my head spinning from all the conflicting tugs on my time and attention because we all have too much to do and too few people to do it.

I could tell you how much the staff here understand the importance of their work, and how dedicated they are. Instead I'll show you through a real story from 2008.

Just as Canada was sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner, the power went out across the whole of southern Vancouver Island. It came back an hour or so later. No big deal, our datacentre has backup power and loads of protection devices.

Nevertheless I went to check for emails just in case, and quickly realised that things were not rosy. I eventually managed to get through to the security desk and learned that the whole network was down. I realised there was nothing I could do to help right then; my world is in the applications layer and none of that can begin to work until it has a network to run on. But dozens of staff had already abandoned their families and their dinners and checked in, not even waiting to be called, and starting putting the network back together.

They worked through the night and on through the following day (which was a public holiday) to bring everything back online. One of my own team answered a call at 2am to restore one of our application services critical to the IT business. And everyone was back in the office the following day for their normal shift.

These are not lazy people.


  1. Botanist,

    I want to start by saying that I’m sorry about my first comment. I didn’t mean to say that you or any specific person working for the government was lazy, just that there can be a stigma attached to the job. I’m sorry if I offended you, it was not my intention. Rest assured I have learnt my lesson, I shall never wish you well again. LOL! JK! ;)

    It is terrible when a few people can ruin the reputation of many. It's like that in many fields.

  2. Sheesh, Stella, please don't leave it to the end of a long paragraph again to let me know you're joking...
    *crawls back up from floor clutching heart*

    Of course I knew what you meant. But your (sadly accurate) observation about the attitudes a lot of people have got me thinking, and I just had to get it out of my system. Yes, it's terrible, but people just love to cling to their stereotypes and it's so hard to shift them.

  3. Apt observations. I live in the States and just came off a temporary run with the Census Bureau. My crew leader always put in 60-hour weeks and never got paid for more than 5 hours of overtime a week. Sure we knew of some people who were lazy, but many of us worked our butts off to do the job right.

    Thanks for sticking up for government workers, whatever country they're in. :)

  4. Thanks for dropping by, Owllady. And hurray for hard-working government workers everywhere. You know who you are.


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