Joy in Public Service Must Be Bull*&%!

What’s all this “Joy in Public Service” stuff? Either it’s motherhood and apple pie or it’s cloud cuckoo land. It must be rubbish if it’s anything to do with something like “joy”.

What even is joy?

I get it. I’m a straight-up curmudgeon about these things too. I’ve read a couple of books about happiness and I can’t say I’ve learned anything except that no one can really define it and you can’t get it by chasing it directly. However, happiness exists, for some people, some of the time.

My thesis about Joy in Public Service is not that it is easy, definitely not, not that it is everywhere, certainly not. But I think that delivering and receiving public services is an opportunity to feel and share true joy. The joy of helping and being helped. The joy of being part of something meaningful and that has purpose. The joy of working together, not just in teams, but also those who deliver services with those who benefit from them.

Delivering services is tough. It is complex. It is frustrating. So why are we talking about joy? It’s hard enough to do the job as it is without bringing silly abstract happy-clappy concepts like this into it. Isn’t it? And what would we do about it anyway?

Public services have lost their way. They are buffeted by falling budgets, rising demand, frustrating bureaucracy, constraining rules, labyrinthine processes, vacillating politicians and a fickle public. Technology is running ahead while in the public sector is still stuck in the dark ages. Thinking about leadership and organisational excellence hasn’t changed much in 50 years, yet both are woeful or completely missing in the public sector. There are many systems of improvement that can successfully be applied and yet often the public sector stumbles on, using none of these techniques.

Yet this situation is not for the want of dedicated, intelligent or hard working people. Everyone I meet in the public sector wants things to be different and better. However, there is a common perception that there are too many barriers to be overcome. Some folk have given up. Even the most hopeful are resigned to being “realistic”.

Of course there are pockets of improvement, islands of excellence. But notice that the same examples come up again and again because there are so few to point to. I talked to a Chief Executive at a London Local Authority and he was very proud of the changes made in one of his departments. As we talked about things that had or could happen, he kept coming back to the one group as an example of all sorts of things. But that was the only place. Excellence is hard to spread.

We need a rallying cry, a trusted guide, a reason to press on to do the things that collectively have languished. My suggestion is: “joy”. The reasons for this choice is that the pursuit of joy will also produce all the other things that we need in the public sector.

The Elements of Joy

The requirement for joy in public services are:

  • Meaning and purpose
  • Understanding the true need of the public
  • Working with the public as equals
  • Working as a team
  • Continual improvement — “I did a good job today and tomorrow will be better still.”
  • Improving whole systems
  • Autonomy, responsibility, trust and mastery in work
  • Embracing complexity
  • Leadership
  • Permission to try, fail and learn and adapt

If we can create the environment for these things, then joy will emerge.

But guess what, those things are needed, explicitly or implicitly, to make best use of tight budgets, improve services and meet the expanding demands.

So using Joy in Public Service as a North Star not only brings us a little closer to it but has the side effect of other necessary outcomes too.

The important thing to know is that cutting budgets only stores up trouble for other parts of the system or for the future. Only improving services will truly cut cost.

Only navigating using Joy will keep us on the right path.