BLOG: A skeptic considers the meaning of “public service”

IPAC Chat is a monthly series prepared by members of the board of the Manitoba regional group of the Institute of Public Administration of Canada.

This month’s post is prepared by IPAC Manitoba Communications Chair Emmet Collins.  Emmet is a policy analyst and French Language Services Coordinator with Manitoba Families as well as an Adjunct Professor of Political Studies at the University of Manitoba.


I have never been especially comfortable with the term « civil/public servant ». I wasn’t before I entered the civil service, and I’m still not. There is a grandiosity to it that feels insincere. I work for the province and its residents, yes, but I’m also paid to do so. In that respect my job isn’t any different from anyone else’s. And unlike, say, police officers, or military personnel, or really any number of other front-line staff, doing my job doesn’t put me in any danger. In fact, as a policy analyst, my work can seem far removed from the public that I’m described as serving. Ultimately, then, part of my reticence comes from the fact that I don’t really believe that my getting paid to work in an office building is especially noble. I suspect I’m not alone.

That might seem like a very dour perspective. To be clear, I’m not denigrating those who consider themselves to be serving the public by working in government, in whatever capacity they do. Finding value in the work you do is genuinely important. I also don’t subscribe to the school of thought which looks at government work as “lesser than”.

“Where are you going with this, Emmet?”

I came up with the idea of having a blog post to celebrate National Public Service Week, then realized it was unfair to offload the actual writing on someone else. So, feeling as I just described, I challenged myself to write something honest, to consider what exactly about National Public Service Week I consider worth celebrating.

I return to the idea of finding value in your work. I get the opportunity to do interesting work with brilliant people on a daily basis. I receive assignments that challenge me, and, coming from a background in academia, I get a chance to really use my skills and develop a range of new ones.

An environment in which smart people get to do challenging work is worth celebrating. The provincial (and federal, and municipal) government provides that environment, and that benefits the provincial population as a whole. That work has value, both for those who do it and those who are affected by it.

National Public Service Week will mean different things for different people. But for me, it’s less about the day-to-day work and more about recognizing the value in creating a space for capable people to tackle challenging issues on behalf of the wider population.


2 thoughts on “BLOG: A skeptic considers the meaning of “public service”

  1. Great article Emmet. I still like the term public service, as it denotes a whole set of professional values that people in the private sector are less cognizant of. I recall discussing the differences many times in my MPA seminars, especially on several occasions when fellow Pubic Administration students came back and reported on their experiences taking course in the MBA program(s). They often said they couldn’t stand it, the focus on money and the bottom line. Government services do many of the nasty tasks that just don’t work in efficiency or profit driven businesses, and the overarching goal is always public good, not share-holder profit. None of the machinery of government works without the unsung heroes doing the work in the fore and background, at all levels. So, the analyst, and all of the the support staff are as much public servants as the Ministers and DMs who get to make the announcements, maybe even more so. I’ve also felt that many public servants could be paid better in the private sector, but they chose to sacrifice that for the public good, providing their services for government salaries. Yes, there is some stability in the government paycheque, and that is nice, but may highly talented people could be doing much better in the private sector, so we should recognize that as community service. Some of the brightest and most highly motivated people I know have dedicated their careers to publishing service.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s