Some thoughts on the civil service


in Canada, Daily updates, Politics, Rants, The environment

More than a year has now passed since I left the public service. The most surprising thing about that is how I don’t feel like I have ever regretted the choice. There are individuals who I miss, and I certainly miss the regular paycheques, but there have seldom if ever been times when I would have exchanged my current situation as a student for a magical instant return to being a full-time civil servant.

This contrasts, for instance, with my choice of PhD program. Most of the time, I remain convinced that the University of Toronto was the best choice from among the schools that accepted me. That said, there have surely been times – living in an inhospitable city where the traffic makes me too afraid to cycle – when I ponder what it would have been like to study at the University of California, Santa Barbara – and with three times as much funding, to boot. Naturally, I have also felt open at many times to the appeal of being at the University of British Columbia and back in Vancouver.

By contrast, memories of the civil service never leave me feeling a desire for sudden transplantation. I am grateful for the time I spent there; it is certainly a good way to learn about how this country operates. Oftentimes, however, my strongest sense when thinking about the institution is about how sad and disturbing it is that our federal civil service is so inactive about climate change. Indeed, it is probably a net contributor to the growing severity of the problem, given how much priority advocating for oil pipelines and for scrapping rules and processes for environmental protection has gotten over the actual implementation of policies with real potential to substantially diminish Canada’s greenhouse gas contribution. I feel like people in fifty years will find it surprising to learn about how unconcerned our leaders were about the problem, how wilfully blind they were about the disjoint between the policies they supported and their supposed goal of avoiding dangerous climate change, and how ignorant and complacent the Canadian population at large was about the problem. The gap between our policies and what climate science shows to be necessary is so wide that it makes our present approach look like little more than a distracting facade, designed to sustain the public misperception about how insufficient our current approaches are.

As the above probably makes clear, my main feelings about the public service are anger, frustration, and sadness. Sadness because of the gap between what we are capable of, and what we are actually doing. The civil service is full of intelligent, dedicated people who are making a substantial and genuine effort to make Canada and the world a better place. At the same time, they are confronting the chasm between an elected government that has never been serious about curbing climate change and a situation in the world where the problem is increasingly evident and threatening. The full effects of today’s emissions won’t be felt for decades, so if we are to avoid truly terrible outcomes, global emissions need to start diving soon. Yet that is far from what’s on even the ambitious side of the political agenda. The real policy we are enacting is for a perpetuated status quo of ever-growing fossil fuel production, despite the clear scientific basis for seeing that status quo as suicidal.

Much can change politically if real and immediate disaster does come to pass. The general public might finally accept the argument that imposing climate change on future generations is an intolerable wrong; or they may simply perceive it happening quickly enough to seem like a threat to themselves. Politicians may finally accept that fossil fuel companies aren’t primarily generous tax-payers and contributors to election campaigns – but rather entities working hard to undermine the habitability of the planet. Something on par with a major war may blow up the issue enough psychologically for it to rise to an appropriate level of urgency.

Wherever the impulse for change comes from, it won’t be from the federal civil service, which is entirely too contented with continuing to support policies that propel us toward planetary catastrophe. It may well not be in academia either but, at least for the present moment, the latter seems a more promising place to dedicate my energy for now.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

anon July 31, 2013 at 12:54 am

Keep on your whining. You got fired so fuck you.

allusive101 August 1, 2013 at 11:04 am

He elected to leave the civil service.
They didn’t love his blog, true, but he was good at his job and left because he wanted to do other things.

@ Anon The merits of your comment are evident from the language you chose, and the total lack of content.
I’m sure you’ll continue happily trolling whether or not anyone responds.

alena August 1, 2013 at 8:30 pm

Both of the above comments are useless junk. Write a blog with some social content and see how well you will do! Do you have the guts to stand up for your principles and to make a difference in the world? I don’t think so.

NKDSJxdIS8 August 2, 2013 at 12:32 am

Toward whom are these incoherent questions directed?

alena August 2, 2013 at 1:34 pm

An anonymous judgement does not carry any weight and it goes against freedom of speech. Personal attacks are a reflection on the attacker.

Milan August 2, 2013 at 10:08 pm

I disagree with the part about anonymity.

I encourage anonymous contributions, and recommend that people use tools like the TOR Browser Bundle to make it more meaningful.

. August 21, 2013 at 6:33 pm

Thirty years ago, I added, [All Souls] prize fellows would certainly have considered the civil service to be as attractive as academe or business as a career choice. With no hesitation, he replied, ‘Well, not me. It is either academe or business. He explained: ‘I want to look back at some point in my career and see that I have built something, that I have built a business or written a book. It is really not about accumulating money.’ In government, he added ‘you are part of a maze, a process, and you never know if in the end you have contributed to the success or failure of anything.’

Savoie, Donald. Court Government and the Collapse of Accountability in Canada and the United Kingdom. 2008. p.ix (hardcover)

. August 21, 2013 at 7:00 pm

“The policy role of civil servants now is less about having an intimate knowledge of a relevant sector and being able to offer policy options and more about finding empirical justifications for what the elected politicians have decided to do… These skills are much more akin to the political world than those found in Weber’s bureaucratic model.”

Savoie, Donald. Court Government and the Collapse of Accountability in Canada and the United Kingdom. 2008. p.228-9

. August 21, 2013 at 7:06 pm
Milan April 21, 2015 at 2:32 pm

It’s surprising – despite significant anxiety about leaving when I was in the civil service, I don’t think there has been a day, or even an hour, when I wished to still be there after going.

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