Geo-Economics and Politics

This one profession affects the lives of all of us

People try to commute to New York at the Hoboken Terminal in New Jersey, U.S. July 10, 2017.

‘Governments around the world are full of civil servants doing groundbreaking work that no one ever hears about - not even other civil servants.’ Image: REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Alexander Starritt
Editor, Apolitical
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You probably don’t realise how much your life is affected by the working habits of civil servants.

While doing their jobs, they have so much power to shape your daily experiences: does the new school go on your street or someone else’s; does your city build a park in your neighbourhood or does it build a motorway; is your electricity cheap or expensive; your air dirty or clean; your commute easy or frustrating; your job opportunities plentiful or scarce.

And how do these individuals, no more omniscient than you or I, make those decisions? We at Apolitical surveyed 7,000 of them to find out. We did it by making a fun, Buzzfeed-style quiz asking, what type of public servant are you – a wonk, an innovator, a director or an unsung hero? You can still take the test here.

Into it we embedded some crucial questions, such as this one:

Image: Apolitical

The result is clear: by far the largest number think the one change that would improve their work is more contact with people doing innovative things.

Why is that? Because governments around the world are full of civil servants doing groundbreaking work that no one ever hears about - not even other civil servants.

And why should you, as an ordinary citizen going about your business, give two hoots about what civil servants hear? An example:

There’s a way of reducing the number of people killed in road accidents called Vision Zero. It’s a set of policies that together have reduced the number of fatalities in New York to their lowest level since before the First World War - despite the population almost doubling.

It’s now being adopted all over the US and all over the world. But it was actually invented in Sweden 20 years ago. 20 years! Back in 1997 people were still asking what the ‘information superhighway’ was, and it was two years before the BlackBerry was invented, let alone the iPhone. And in all that time before the civil servants of New York heard about Vision Zero, New Yorkers were being needlessly killed on the city’s streets.

So, not to be overly dramatic, but if you don’t want to be crushed by a lorry or run over at a dangerous intersection, that’s why you should care what civil servants hear about.

Incidentally, the only reason Vision Zero spread to New York was because of a man named Steve Hindy, a brewer from Brooklyn. After his son was killed in a bicycle accident on the Manhattan Bridge in 2007, he happened to go to Sweden on business, and brought the idea back with him.

It’s surprisingly difficult for civil servants to hear about the clever fixes invented by their colleagues in other countries. It’s surprisingly difficult for them even to get any advice from people who’ve been in their situation before. Take a look at this next result.

In our quiz, we asked where public servants currently tend to turn for help when making big, important, expensive policy decisions with long term consequences for the rest of us. They said:

Image: Apolitical

Only 13% presently turn to their colleagues for help, even though those colleagues have worked on closely comparable problems from a closely comparable perspective. That’s the same number as those who basically listen to their gut – hardly the evidence base we’d like our governments to act on.

And yet it’s not difficult to find out what your peers think of things. We all slickly and easily go on platforms that let us do that. On Amazon, you can see which books other people think are good; on TripAdvisor, which hotels they like in Thailand; on Instagram, which cats look most like Hitler.

It’s crazy that you can find out which mattresses are lumpy in Kho Pha Ngan, but civil servants can’t ask their peers about how to tackle problems that affect literally every person on the planet.

And it’s not like they don’t want to collaborate. Look at this result:

Image: Apolitical

Some 95% of them think that collaborating is useful. And a huge majority most want to hear from other people, rather than spreading good ideas of their own.

In case you’re wondering why I’ve got so much to say about this, it’s because I work for Apolitical, which has built a platform for civil servants to do these things. It combines articles about groundbreaking work with a network of leading practitioners from around the world.

We’re backed by the governments of the UK and Australia, the European Union and big international organisations like UNICEF. We also work with first rank institutions like the World Bank and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government to bring together the best people and ideas. If you’re interested in what we’re doing, check it out here.

But, as I say, we all have an interest in civil servants getting connected to each other. If you’re not in government yourself, what can you do?

I’d suggest giving them a break sometimes. Almost everything we hear about government is about things going wrong: mistakes, problems, waste, incompetence. And it stops the good ideas getting any airtime.

Our democracies are under attack from many angles right now – not least from a widespread feeling that government is A Bad Thing. If we want easy commutes, clean air and healthy children, we have to start paying attention to what is working.

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