Despite the pre-80s reforms Gliding On stereotype, in which a bunch of people did a whole lot of nothing, there are a lot of different types of roles involved in making the public service work. Let’s face facts, managing the expectations and needs of 4 million people is never going to be easy, and you need lots of people to be doing things.
For the past year my role has centred around the acquisition and dissemination of data and information, and it’s been pretty interesting. It’s not as flashy as some of the jobs in government-overall, I’d never be able to take a Crown car to the pub, but it is a solid occupation. I recently attended the ANZEA conference for example, and was reassured when finding out that most all of the challenges I face in my role are shared by the private sector.
The first and foremost issue faced by researchers and evaluators is the problem of having people uptake and listen to whatever it is you’re needing them to listen to. The second issue is knowing what you’re talking about. Why in that order? Because if you can’t do the first, the second doesn’t matter. If you can’t communicate then you could fill a report with lolcats and pictures of the Hoff and no-one will ever be the wiser.
There are of course specialist roles that centre on effective dissemination of information, but it is unreasonable to expect absolutely everyone to be expert at it. What I’m finding more and more though is that it is not unreasonable to expect as many people aas possible to at least be competent at communication.
This necessity made me aware of a problem I’d noticed about academia while in Melbourne. Academics are the repository for huge amounts of information. They study topics in incredible depth, and they have (or should have) a wide breadth of knowledge on their favoured area. But hand in hand with this trainspotter behaviour goes the inability to effectively disseminate their knowledge. Some academics are simply unable to get their ideas out there.
But communication is vital in today’s knowledge economies. If we can’t have our experts getting their ideas out to those who need them, then their utility is severely curtailed. Some are of course expert at selling. Dave Snowden is a thinker someone put me onto, and he sells and distributes ideas simply and effectively. In a way, Snowden is more than a thinker, Dave is a knowledge-maven, and in my opinion it’s the kind of role we need to see much much more of.
Knowledge-mavens are great because they take the thinking of the not-so-socially-adept and put them out there into the public sphere for the consumption of everyone. I in fact think that it’s an absolutely vital role that needs to be made more of, especially in a country like New Zealand where knowledge and better practise are the one thing that can give us an edge. Sure some commodity prices in particular are increasing, but that isn’t real productivity gain, that’s just good luck.
It’s that conduit role between ‘high-expert’ and knowledge market that most interests me, and is kind of a good description for public service researchers. There’s not the time to become completely expert in understanding the subjects for which your Ministry or Department is responsible. Moreover, becoming a high-expert will make you too valuable in the private sector for the public service to employ you. Consequently you end up being a channel for knowledge to other roles than need information to be more informed, therefore better performers.
Which brings us back to the issue of effective communication. If you can’t channel the right kind of information, to the right people, when they actually need it, then you’re not doing your job. Again, the private sector also faces this exact issue.
It’s for that reason that I see my role as being something of a low-ranked knowledge-maven. Sure, I get to create a lot of reports in my project areas, and I also get to shelve a lot of those same reports when other roles become too busy to read them. But, I also see myself having to hold and disseminate as much tacit knowledge about my areas of responsibility whenever possible, to whomever possible. Basically I just tell everyone things they need to know, but may not have time to read about, whenever I can.
It’s a smart-arse’s delight.
Oh, and the issue of whether I can be trusted as a source of knowledge is another post altogether.