My public service journey: what I’ve learned so far

By Stephanie Van Laeken

September 9, 2020


I started my public service journey in Canada as a cooperative (CO-OP) student in 2006, ready and eager to apply my classroom knowledge in a real-world, practical setting. I was an idealist and couldn’t wait to change the world. Throughout my 14 years of experience as a public servant I have become more of a realist.

I understand and now appreciate how policy work can be ambiguous and often takes place under uncertainty. I have seen how fast new policies and amendments can be implemented depending on government priorities. I have come to appreciate the importance of being able to manage issues and the importance of being able to clearly communicate with key stakeholders in a relatable way and the significance of resilience to continue to adapt given how fast things can change and continuously have been changing for the roles of government.

I still want to “change the world” but am now geared to do it in a much more informed and practical way as a result of my many roles I have taken on.

I am grateful that throughout the years, my career has taken me beyond public service and into international settings. I have developed a global perspective and an appreciation for quality, innovation and impact. I have also deepened my commitment to the principles of equity, diversity and inclusion in planning, collaborative decision-making and execution.

Here are a few of the lessons learned from my experience within the public service:

 1. Don’t discredit how much you know

Be bold — embrace any fear you may have about taking on new roles.

In 2015 I had a break from government, as I became the second hire after the executive director at a new not-for-profit, Oceana Canada. Along with hiring and training new staff, I was simultaneously communications director, financial adviser and executive assistant. I also had to collaborate with numerous celebrities on the global board of directors.

Although I had not previously acted in these roles, I thrived using my prior knowledge and transferable skills gained from my work as a public servant. It is surprising how much exposure you gain (and absorb!) from working in the public service.

2. What’s “old” may be “new”

Sometimes standard practices in your workplace are novel to others.

After years of recovery following the “Celtic Tiger” era, the Irish government was in a position to invest in their heritage institutions. The deteriorating physical infrastructure and repairing the Victorian book stacks were the first priorities for the National Library of Ireland (NLI). To accomplish the task, the Office of Public Works and the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht had to engage in a tripartite agreement. This was a novel experience for NLI staff, who had never before had to engage with multiple partners to execute a project. The magic of knowing how to write two-page briefing notes came in handy!

Strong succinct communication is a fundamental but often overlooked skill. What to include and not include as well as how detailed a piece should be is the key to success in how the information is received.

3. Yes, your skills are transferable (and highly valued!)

The 2018 cold wave dubbed the “beast from the east” (trust me, this was no beast) occurred while I was employed at Trinity College in Dublin. Many department staff were unable to travel to campus; myself, the director and administrative assistant were the lone staff. My director was confronted with the issue of updating the college’s website, to ensure this information was communicated to staff, students and the general public.

Armed with passwords, as well as previous experience uploading press releases and articles on the college’s website, I was able to quickly indicate on the website banner that the college was closed until further notice.

As a civil servant, executing any task calmly and with confidence serves you well. This is especially true when faced with multiple rush requests while working on high profile government initiatives with competing priorities.

 4. People will take a chance on you

There is a lot of opportunity for continuous growth and development if you seek it.

I was policy lead for executing regulatory amendments to the Customer Service Standards under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. 2005. I was charged with gaining approvals and ensuring compliance with the cabinet regulatory process. Had I ever done this? No. Nonetheless, my peers and management had complete confidence in my ability and skills. I was able to collaborate and build new relationships with legal counsel and staff in other government ministries.

Experiences such as this allow you to “switch hats.” In this case, viewing the legislation from both policy and communications lenses as required and gaining the ability to express the policy changes in practical terms to ensure understanding from the public.

 5. Diversity is a strength

Diversity has been instilled in all of my work: at the civil service, in the not-for-profit sector and in my work for public institutions abroad.

In the Public Affairs and Communications Department at Trinity College Dublin, I was the only person who was not Irish, but I possessed the skill set desired by Trinity. My first day on the job, the director told me to be honest and transparent (speak up!) if I felt anything should be changed (e.g. policies or procedures). I was taken aback, but agreed to adhere to his request — mind you my colleagues and direct reporting manager were not always a fan of this approach!

Being a public servant has enabled me to work with people of various backgrounds and professions including engineers, scientists, librarians, doctors, journalists, architects, economists, academics and the list goes on!.

Diversity not just based on race but across professions and generations and the focus of collaboration is so much more powerful than working as individuals. This mindset has allowed me to think about my friends, colleagues and anyone who may be impacted by the work I undertake.

A few take-aways

I am grateful that I have had the mobility to work within and outside of the public sector and the numerous opportunities for growth. The many years of growth and self-reflection has made me increasingly self aware and I have learned just how adaptable and resilient I can be and how much I thrive with continuous change. I don’t necessarily do well with too much routine!

If you’re a public servant, I hope you won’t discredit how much you know — be bold — embrace any fear you may have about taking on new roles. Working in the public service has allowed me to be a continuous learner and provided me with the opportunity to be engaged in additional skills that wouldn’t necessarily be part of my job description.

I appreciate and thrive on the new challenges presented with each career opportunity and look forward to pursuing future opportunities for continuous life-long learning. I am comforted by the knowledge that I will be able to draw upon my skills and experiences from my time in the public sector. Embrace what you have learned and be bold.

This article is curated from Apolitical.

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