What do I want from the public service? I want champions of the public, regardless of our rank, colour, education, health status, age, ability. I want the concept of serving the greater good, the commons, support for systems to be improved every time they are touched.
My recent experience of the public health system has been devastating – so much so that I have given the system some feedback via the complaints officer at the hospital concerned. Throughout the encounter there was a series of acts of carelessness, one after the other, turning into what could only colloquially be called a clusterf*ck . It was truly horrible and perhaps for someone else might well have been cause for suicidal ideation or even worse an attempt or even worse again, a success. Carelessness is a sign of that frog in water where over time the water has come to the boil and the frog just didn’t notice and jump out in time. The ones being careless are signs and symptoms of malaise, probably eating away at those in the system with the same tenacity as the disease that lives at my house that eats away the one I love.
My white, educated privilege allowed me to make that complaint and to be affronted with the information, the particularly clinic hadn’t had a complaint for over six months. I am not surprised they haven’t had complaints – who wants to complain if they think they may loose a service, who can complain if English isn’t your first language, who complain if you’re unable to find your voice, who can complain if you don’t have the emotional energy or capacity to make a complaint – these are the people sharing the waiting room I was in that day – so no wonder no one has ever complained.
What ever happened to the tea lady (I used to know her as Vera) who would come along the corridors and monitor the wellbeing of the patients and families in the waiting rooms and offer refreshment and a friendly ear to staff as well? Vera behaved as if we were all honoured guests in her home. The surveillance camouflaged by Caterers Blend coffee and Coles tea bags offered respite while waiting for many people over the years – doctors waiting for results, patients waiting for doctors, relatives waiting for patients. The ritual of an out patients appointment always included the tea lady. I am not nostalgic for the beverages, I am nostalgic for the care and humanity.
I heard one of the most senior public servants this week call those public servants who worked at the edges, with little or no resources “scrappy”. He was using it as a term of endearment and encouragement – people to be celebrated who without much support from their peers or their executive leaders, used the margins to find and leverage innovation by flying under the radar. These people are not scrappy – they are doing their job – making the system work for the public, offering new ways forward, because the old ways are not working and should frankly be stopped and squashed. The old ways are also careless, business as usual is not what we need at a time when our whole economy, environment and therefore our society is in transition. I am looking for those public servants who know how to wriggle, wrangle and contest the systems they find themselves in, to be guides and help with reconnaissance missions to find new ways forward, to not read the words on a plan and say lets do it, when all the facts point to the plan not being viable.
Sobbing my way through a complaint to the public hospital is humiliating but easy at one level – the personal is political. The scrappy public servant needs to be the norm in these times and frankly I want more of them please. Stop being bystanders and start being upstanders, call out the carelessness (that verges on negligence at times) don’t hide behind rules, find ways to champion and not fly under the radar – there are lives to be saved.
My promise to tomorrow is to call for more recklessness in the public sector that truly disrupts and drives out carelessness. Seeking those public sector leaders to foster more courage to be scrappy and make scrappy the norm.