Just over a year ago I defected from government as an employee to go right back in as a self-employed contractor. I’ve spent my whole professional life in non-profit and statutory sectors. Though I’m not the only person to leave government to go it alone, I have yet to work with another freelancer with a background in public services. There is a lot of work going on around me in government to do with exploring or implementing better and more innovative digital services for citizens. With that work comes a wave of new independent temporary workers whose skill sets and for-profit service development experiences are a necessary complement (or challenge) to traditional public service ways of working. Governments aren’t generally held up for their fantastic technology projects so I’m relieved to see fresh blood in and from where I’m sitting the level of talent coming through government doors is very high. It’s a privilege to be around such experienced people, especially because it means I am closer to private sector ways of thinking and approaches to development and working than I’ve ever been in my life and that is useful learning for me. I hope these people can learn from me too.
It can be really hard for someone to enter the public sector from outside. The organisations are behemoth, complete with incomprehensible structures and procedures. They’re not exactly modern workplaces with modern practices. But it can be especially hard if someone doesn’t have much empathy or if they don’t remember that everything we do has a purpose and that is to positively impact people and communities.
Apart from substantially increasing the number of beards in the public sector workforce, this new wave of contractors bring with them agility, creativity, a love of experimentation and iteration and an exciting feedback led approach to developing services taken from the many startups or agencies they’ve worked with before. But sometimes what’s missing is the acknowledgement or recognition that working in government means respecting and referencing policy, strategy or the public services landscape. There may also sometimes be a lack of recognition that, as public service creators or re-inventors, we are accountable to citizens and responsible for making things they want to use. We are not here to flog stuff to them.
A blended approach to creation and delivery is a beautiful thing but when the balance swings too far one way or the other, the result could either be a piece of work so lumbered with bureaucracy or fear that it never gets off the ground or a piece of work that is created for a marketplace as opposed to being created for the benefit of our wider society. Maybe sometimes those of us from public services who are passionate about better use of technology by government need to be a bit better at transferring knowledge to newcomers and bridging gaps in understanding about government and what it does. Having an understanding of policy or strategy and building beautiful and useful digital services for government are not mutually exclusive.