Author: Jason Schoolmeester

Volunteer and let them see us volunteer

I am a volunteer. I have sold raffle tickets, cooked sausages, coordinated parking, been a stagehand and I have had the chance to volunteer as a member of management committees and boards. I grew up with parents who volunteered. According to the ABS 2006 Volunteer Workforce Survey, 5.8 million Australians volunteer and in the Northern Territory, 35.8% of Territorians volunteer.

I strongly believe that volunteering benefits the individual, teams and the community. After reading a report by Baroness Neuberger, who at the time of writing the report was the UK Prime Minister’s Volunteering Champion, I see a huge opportunity for the public service in Australia. An opportunity to show leadership in, and provide support to, the community. How? By volunteering.

Baroness Neuberger’s report in July 2009 looked at employer-supported volunteering in the civil service. There are already many successful employer-supported volunteering schemes in UK government departments. However, I have not been able to find any similar schemes, in the public service here in Australia. There are volunteering schemes established for major sporting events and recently in relation to the response to the floods in Queensland, but no general scheme to support volunteering by public servants. If you know of a scheme please let me know.

To be clear, I am not saying public servants don’t volunteer. I am confident that many of us do volunteer our skills and our time. Further, I am sure that supervisors and managers support this volunteering effort albeit, informally.

What I am suggesting is that the public service should have a recognised employer-supported volunteering scheme. Such a scheme would not include any volunteering that public servants do in their personal time in no way connected to government. Rather, the scheme would support volunteering that takes place during staff working hours (this includes volunteering outside working hours that is matched with time off by the employer) and has in some way been encouraged or facilitated by the employer, in the case of public servants, the government. It can be self-organised and might often continue outside working hours.

Now I know we are in a time where we have increased expectations from government and the community to deliver more and better quality services while at the same time we have less resources to deliver these services. So how can we afford to have public servants volunteering in the community? Perhaps the better question is: How can we afford not to have public servants volunteering in the community?  Baroness Neuberger offers a business case for volunterring:

  1. Outreach and community engagement enables more responsive government – engaging in volunteering public servants experience the community’s perspective, gain new experiences, create networks and ultimately develop better policies and deliver improved services;
  2. Learning and development – volunteering is a great way to develop and learn new skills, especially softer skills (build self confidence and social skills, learn to relate to more diverse groups of people). Volunteering can be incorporated into a public servant’s learning and development plan;
  3. Boost staff morale and encourage team building – supporting volunteering can enhance a public servants view of the public service generally, increasing the level of pride in the public service and build stronger relationships with colleagues.

In addition to the points above, another benefit from public servants volunteering in the community is that it will help build the capacity of community organisations and the non-government sector generally.  By working with community organisations public servants can share their skills and knowledge with other volunteers, including how to engage more effectively with government.

By way of example, when I worked in the Department of Justice we created a “Green Team”. In 2010, the Green Team, with the support of the Department, coordinated our participation in Clean Up Australia Day. Over 30 people attended and we even had a local butcher donate sausages for lunch when he heard what we were doing. It was hot, hard and thirsty work and we earned those sausages. We were equals, there was no hierarchy, whether you were an administrative assistant or a senior lawyer, we all got our hands dirty. It was satisfying work and by the end of the day we had built stronger relationships with each other. We were engaged in a common enterprise that was adding value to the community. These kind of activities are worth supporting.

Earlier this month, the UK Government announced its commitment to giving 30,000 volunteering days a year (see details here).  This commitment equates to just over 82 years of effort put into the non-government sector annually.  As part of the scheme, the UK Government is enabling the non-government sector to make direct requests for specific help when needed.  This is an extraordinary commitment which is being supported by large companies such as KPMG and the BT Group who support the initiative.

I would like to see the public service here in Australia, whether Federal, State or Territory, make a similar commitment and introduce employer-supported volunteer schemes.  Even just 10,000 volunteering days per year (or just over 27 years of volunteering effort).  This will make a significant contribution to the non-government sector, not to mention the benefits for the public service and the individual public servants.

I will leave you will one final thought from Baroness Neuberger:

“I would like to see volunteering become part of the DNA of our society”.

regards, Jason
A public servant since 28 June 1999.

Note: At the time of writing this post all links I could find to the report were broken.  If you want a copy of the report please email me and I will send you the copy I downloaded.

What are the Brown M&Ms for the Public Service?

Dan Heath and Chip Heath have drawn inspiration from some interesting sources in their article “Business advice from Van Halen” published in Fast Company .  The story talks about early warning signs and eventually explains that Val Halen had a no brown M&Ms clause in their contract. In addition to requiring a bowl of M&Ms backstage, the contract contained Article 126 which read:

“There will be no brown M&Ms in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.”

This simple requirement buried deep in the contract, a contract spelling out detailed technical requirements, allowed Van Halen to quickly determine if the production crew had read the contract and whether or not a technical error was likely.

So what are the brown M&Ms for the public service?  Here are some ideas:

  • No thought of the citizen / the public in service delivery, policy development and implementation
  • Little or no focus on the future just dealing with immediate problems
  • Absence of alternative view points being presented in discussions
  • Lack of a bias for action, just lots of planning
  • No mistakes
  • People who use the sentence – ‘we can’t raise expectations’
  • Units with an over-representation of 50+ year old men
  • Strong hierarchies
  • People uncomfortable with even a little brainstorming, who divert conversations to frameworks, processes and resources
  • Units that never describe the ‘outcomes’ from their work.

But how do we get the same immediacy as Van Halen’s brown M&Ms?


Resolutions for 2011

At the beginning of a new year many of us make resolutions: get fit; stop smoking; quit coke (and I will); lose weight (I am working on it); save more money; achieve goals; be more organised; and write a guest post for

How many of your resolutions for 2011 relate to your role as a public servant?  Finance, health, relationships – these areas all get some attention. I encourage you to spare some thought for the kind of public servant you want to be.  I have set out below some ideas you might consider when thinking about your resolutions.

Possible public servant resolutions for 2011

1. Participate.  Get involved.  Don’t sit on the sidelines.  Share your ideas; help develop the ideas of your colleagues. No matter what you do, make a contribution.  You can get a lot of satisfaction from developing and implementing ideas to improve the way you work, the way we deliver services to the community, whether the ideas are your own or that of a colleague.

2. Grow. Continuing to learn and grow your capacity can enhance your contribution as a public servant. Whether it is learning new ways to create policy or engage with the community or new skills such as project management, learning helps you improve your capacity as a public servant.  Improving your capacity means you may be given other opportunities.  Think about how you want to contribute as a public servant and what you need to learn to position yourself to give you the best chance of getting that opportunity.  Remember, it may be that the best way to grow is to take up an opportunity to work in another part the public service.

3. Live your public service values.  Your Department, and possibly your public service, has gone to a lot of trouble to identify values that support the objectives of the Department.  Do you know what they are? Do you live them?  Resolve to live the values of your Department.  If you have an issue with the current set of values, then talk to others about your ideas and make sure you get involved in any planning process.

4. Collaborate.  There is a lot of talk about collaborating with other parts of your Department, with other Departments, with NGOs and the private sector.  Are you collaborating? We produce better work and can achieve better outcomes when we leverage the knowledge and support of our colleagues. Who can help you improve your work? What information do you need and who has it? What information do you have that you can share with colleagues in your Department of even another Department? How can you work with another Department to better your own and their objectives? Take an interest in what other Departments are doing and I guarantee you will find ways where you can collaborate to deliver better outcomes.  Equally important, share what you are doing with your colleagues and you will find they are able to give you new insights and ideas to improve the work you are doing.

5. Support. Take a look around your division or Department.  How can you support or assist a colleague in their job? What can you do to help give a colleague what they need to excel at their work?  Resolve to work with your colleagues, to help your colleagues become better at what they do.

6. Serve. Think about this idea of service.  No seriously, think about it.  You are a public servant. There is no greater work to be done than the work in service to your community.  So take pride in the opportunity you have to serve. As you go about your work, think of the greater good and the interests of your community.  Make a commitment to be a better servant of the people, a better public servant.

I encourage you to share any resolutions you have made about your role as a public servant.

regards, Jason
A public servant since 28 June 1999.

End of the year – a perfect time to say thank you

I was sitting down to a drink yesterday afternoon with two friends (they would hate me using the word mentors, but they are both friends and mentors) and we were discussing many different things.  One idea that we discussed was saying thank you to those people you valued in 2010.  Our relationships, both inside and outside the public service are a key part of being an effective public servant and often we don’t put enough effort into maintaining and building our relationships.  Sure we are all professional, but I think being professional is not enough, we also need to be people first.

It is the end of 2010 and there are many people with whom you have worked with over the year. These people have, in many cases, provided valuable input into your projects or programs, taught some new skill, helped you gain a different perspective.  Whatever they did, it was something that you can respect and value.  Now is a great time to acknowledge their contribution.

So here is the challenge: Take a few moments before you rush off to your end of year break and pick 10 people (or more, but 10 will be a challenge for most of us) and take a moment to thank them.

Remember you don’t have to just pick public servants, there may be people working in other organisations that you worked with this year that made a recognisable contribution.

A few tips on the thanking part:

  • email, note or phone – you can call up your people and say thanks.  Personally, I like the idea of them having an email or a hand written note, something they may keep and re-read in the new year
  • make it personal – don’t just say thanks, but highlight why you valued them this year
  • gifts are not essential – you don’t have to give a gift or other token.  In some cases, you may be moved to give a gift, that is your choice but think about the recipient and whether they will feel comfortable with receiving a gift
  • do it before Christmas
  • remember in 2011 that you don’t have to wait until the end of year to say thanks

regards, Jason
A public servant since 28 June 1999.

Got a good idea? Feed it to the Lions

John Kotter in his article entitled “Need Buy-In? Invite the Lions in” has some good advice about protecting your good idea.

I am sure you have experienced that sinking feeling that comes from a good, even great, idea that is trampled and crushed by the usual suspects before it can take flight.  Mr Kotter suggests that the way to protect your idea, or even come to the rescue of someone else’s, is to understand the strategies of the naysayers.  Mr Kotter sets out 4 strategies that are used to kill a good idea:

  • Death by delay;
  • Confusion;
  • Fear mongering; and
  • Character assassination.

To these 4 strategies I suggest you can add two types of “smiling” assassins:

  • Capacity limiters – those that believe that the agenda is already full and bringing in another idea is beyond the capacity of the organisation; and
  • Guaranteed deliverers – those that need a guarantee that whatever idea is taken on, there must be a safe passage to a guaranteed result.

Both of these groups are ‘on-your-side’ and want to progress your idea, its just that their conservative nature or perhaps their being worn down by experience that desires or needs a greater certainty from everything they commit too.

Using your understanding of the nature of the naysayers and their strategies, Mr Kotter suggests that you should “invite in the lions” to critique your idea.  Engage your attackers and answer them fully, let them see the value of your idea and win them over.  At the very least you will know what they will say when you present your idea for wider acceptance.  Great advice, but you will need to wear a thick skin and keep the faith!

Another interesting comment from Mr Kotter is that:

“competent creation and implementation of good ideas is a basic life skill, relevant to the twenty-one-year-old college graduate, the fifty-five-year-old corporate CEO and virtually everyone else. This skill, or lack of it, affects the economy, governments, families and most certainly our own lives.”

I like the thought that the creation and implementation of good ideas is a basic life skill.  We need to be taught more and I agree with Mr Kotter, more work needs to be done around implementation.  I myself struggle with implementation, whether it is due to not knowing where to start or simply that existing commitments or a lack of resources gets in the way.

In talking with others, there are a few of ‘rules of thumb’ that seem to be essential if you are going to get your idea across the line.

  • First up, timing is everything.  If there is no ‘clear air’, or the key decision makers have very little ‘left in the tank’ then you are pushing things up hill;
  • Next, the messages need to be crafted so it is easer to ‘say yes than to say no’ – it links with the first point, but you need to avoid ‘deal breakers’ upfront;
  • As well, your language is crucial.  Creative types use a language that scares or disenfranchises a lot of people – you really need to communicate with them ‘on their terms’ and use your energy and enthusiasm to drive them from within.
  • And finally, spend the time ‘one-on-one’ with the people likely to be key in the room (this is very much like Mr Kotter’s idea of inviting in the Lions).  Give them a chance to voice concerns and problems in privacy – and for you to take those on board or explain how you have catered for those issues already.  It means that they then see a piece of themselves in your pitch.
  • And remember – if you can’t describe ‘what success looks like’ then its pretty hard to ask people to follow you!

Do you have any tips for advancing good ideas? Please share your experiences, I would like to read them.

regards, Jason
A public servant since 28 June 1999.

Meeting the needs of citizens and the community

I read a really interesting article on client service entitled “What happens when you really meet people’s needs” by Tony Schwartz on the Harvard Business Review blog. Takeaways for me:

  • employees understood the goal or what success looked like and could explain how their role/actions fits within that goal;

Do all public servants understand their role? How their actions contribute toward the priorities of their Division, Department or even the whole of government priorities?  Public servants are the instruments of implementation for government policy but it seems too often they don’t understand why they do what they are doing.

  • employees were trusted and given specific delegation to fix problems; and

Often is seems that the accountability of the public sector is paramount and delegations to fix things are set at to high a level.  The result? Poor client service and a front line with no delegation or ability to fix things that should just be fixed.

  • regular times to connect with each other and reconnect with the goal through examples.

Such a powerful and simple tool: taking time to reconnect with the goal and work through examples that team members have actually experienced provides a great opportunity to learn, to improve service delivery. The public service is all about serving the community and it should be leading the way in terms of what citizens expect from a government. regards, Jason A public servant since 28 June 1999.