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Eureka: Reflections on public service Eureka: Reflections on public service
by Akli Hadid
2017-09-24 10:01:33
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Shabby final dissertations are rarely the result of shabby dissertation proposals. When Ph.D. Candidates submit their dissertation proposals, we know the proposal is either not realistic, too ambiguous, lacks clarity, is political rather than scientific or whatever other reservations we might have about the proposal. But because the guy behind the proposal had his parents donate money to the university, or out of empathy because we know he needs to graduate quickly, or simply because he's been suffering for too long, we pass him at the thesis proposal and we pass him at the dissertation defense.

pub2_400The same goes for public service. Like in academia, public service is having trouble punching above its weight. In academia, technically you should spend years catching up with literature before you hand in any paper of academic work. But there's no structure to encourage reading, because reading is done vertically rather than horizontally. That is professors assign readings rather than saying “read ten books on a topic you're passionate about and come enlighten us about what you've read.” That's a lot of books professors assign that no one reads, and a feeling of other people not caring what we read so what's the point of reading.

Public service kind of works the same way. You have public servants voting laws and not really caring what the people affected by the laws think. You have governments submitting applications for loans or submitting projects, often drafted in a shabby way, and because they've suffered too long or they were good boys in the past, or in some cases for geo-strategic reasons or for other reasons the budget is approved. Lack of clarity in the project means no one is sure what to do with the budget, and fear of losing one's job often means refusing to complain about the lack of clarity.

In academia as in public service the individualism is blinding. There are few meetings, work is rarely discussed during meetings, everyone wants to get to the top because few ministries have co-ministers, few towns have co-mayors. Same goes for academia, few people get to defend their dissertation together or get a teaching gig together.

In public service this leads to lack of efficiency because problems are rarely discussed. Projects are designed to please leaders and so are services, so as long as we keep the complaints far from the ears of leaders, those same leaders who often want to leave a quiet lifestyle of luxury without being bothered by complaints. Same goes for academia, where the goal is to please the professors who pass or fail you.

Horizontal management doesn't mean open-space where we all get to see each other get humiliated by angry bosses or clients, it means discussing what some of the solutions are. Obviously some are introverts and some are extroverts, some like to brag with crazy ideas and others don't, some like to cut corners and others don't, some think we can get away with doing nothing and just wait for the paycheck while others don't.

So what's the solution? Clear long-term visions is the solution. Not the kind that is laid out in diagrams and with percentages, but the kind that is understood by public servants who know how to act to achieve that long-term vision. And the long-term vision needs to be updated to match the demands of the ever changing world, so public servants can pick up the trends quickly and act upon them. One simple exercise would be to sit down with public servants and ask them: can each individual tell me ten things they would like to change about their job. Now 10 things that you could change, but that you are sure would help you keep your job in the next 30 or 40 years.

As for academia, the same exercise could be useful. What are 10 things you learned during your grad school years? And what are 10 problems you've encountered and that you'd like to solve.


     
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Emanuel Paparella2017-09-24 14:09:21
Indeed, there is the dysfunctional world of academia and public service, where things as they are and as they should be are envisioned; and then there is the idealistic world of academia where things as they never were are envisioned. And then there is the real world of academia; things as they are presently where those who made through bad proposals, bad executions, and bad defenses of dissertations (having raised enough empathy and compassion in the judging professors at the gates of the Ph.D.) reach a modus vivendi with academia, while those who were frustrated at the gates and were left with an ABD which effectively terminated their academic career, go around calling academia an anti-intellectual institution. The same for public service. And so it goes!


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