“Public Service Hit by Strikes”

In Ireland, in recent times, we have had a spate of strikes, threatened strikes and considerable industrial unrest, virtually all of it in the public sector – teachers, nurses, bus drivers, train drivers, Gardai (police force) and some others.  There are many possible reasons for why industrial action is more or less confined to the public sector, one of which is that, because it is public, the employer, the Government, hasn’t the same ability to threaten closedown and set up house in Mumbai or Shanghai that global corporations have and use. But it is not the ‘why’, the obvious causes, that I want to talk about here but rather the deeper dynamic and the senseless and tragic nature of the management of the public service that I want to explore.


What we are seeing and experiencing is large numbers of people who are unhappy or dissatisfied with their working conditions. If I had said with their ‘work’, many of them might have protested that this is not so. Many of them have chosen these professions and are very happy with their choice or, what some might call, their vocation. Some of them, at least, would appreciate that their work and lives consist in providing a public service, a service to the public, to the people. I’m sure a great, great many of them would defend and standby the meaningfulness of this service – the children who will be educated, the patients who will be cared for at the most vulnerable time in their lives, the people who will be transported from place to place, the security provided for people to go about their lives in peace or to help pick up the pieces when those lives hit upon some tragedy. But, it is the failure to highlight, recognise, inspire and reward people for providing these critical services that is the failure of Management in the public service and that leads to the current industrial unrest and the on-going apathy and very often poor levels of quality service that people perceive and receive.

Puts Bread on the Table

I am one of those who enjoy the benefits of our rail service.  I enjoy being transported 200 miles, punctually and reliably and in a comfortable environment where I can work and enjoy a cup of coffee. I feel grateful for it and indebted to the train driver in whose hands I am for two and a half hours. Some weeks back I made a point of talking to the driver as he left the train, and when I commended him for transporting a few hundred people a few hundred miles in safety and remarked on the value of his role, he replied: “Well, it puts bread on the table.”  It is just this that is the problem with people who work in the public service and with people working in most Organisations. Work and service and lives are reduced to “putting bread on the table” – money – and this is never and will never be adequate reward or return for people. People need meaning more than anything else and when we replace meaning with money we are on an endless road to nowhere. You can never get enough of what you didn’t need in the first place.

Meaningful Work and Management:

This is why it is particularly tragic that unrest and unhappiness exist in the public service where there is an abundance of meaning present or available in people’s work.  But most times this meaning is under-played or taken for granted. Managers become more administrators and controllers rather than representatives and champions of meaningful work. This inherent meaning in the nature of the work, of the service that public service workers provide would need to be coupled with structures and systems of work that give people a real say and real ownership for the entities to which they belong and of which they are a part. This is not to imply, of course, that pay and rewards are not important but is saying that when the real value and meaning of work is lost, all weight goes on to the money piece with all of the complexities of comparisons, relativities, perceived unfairness et cetera et cetera. And, there are innumerable imaginative ways to ensure that people have a say in and understand the logic of the reward system within the overall financial context of their school, hospital, bus station, train station, Garda area et cetera.

Management and the Power of Meaning

But this is not only about the public service. It is about the role and responsibility of every manager in every Organisation to ensure that people’s work is meaningful, that they see meaning in everything that is done and that they are invited and enabled to carry out their work in a meaningful way at all times.  Only this will touch the greatness in people and will lead to greatness in Organisations and make them places where people want to be and truly want to provide valuable service be that in the public or so-called private sector.