McTernan on politics

When was the last time you were thanked for something you did at
work? Most of us do receive thanks at one point or another, though
rarely more than two or three times in a career – yet you always
remember it. A senior civil servant once told me that the best
lesson he ever learned was to write three handwritten notes every

On the surface what he started to do was a small thing – taking a
little time to encourage people, thank them or respond to them
directly. What he was actually doing was substantial and
significant. Senior management time is a precious resource – this
leader was using his time and attention as a currency to reward –
and to inspire. I was reminded of this story at a recent seminar.
The speaker was Bob Stone, formerly the head of Bill Clinton and Al
Gore’s Reinventing Government programme, and author of the
teasingly entitled Confessions of a Civil
.1 The issues he tackles are the daily
challenges of public service managers – dealing with difficult
bosses, getting past the barriers to change and tackling a job when
you haven’t a clue. But most of what he says comes down to the
behaviour that should be displayed at all levels in public service.

The political discourse and language about public services is
invariably harsh – whether it is the prime minister complaining
about the “scars on his back” or an inquiry into a service failure.
Responsibility falls on us within individual services to balance

Whenever two or more senior managers are gathered together –
whether hospital chief executives, head teachers, chief constables
or local authority directors – a common theme is staff morale. How
can it be raised?

Bob Stone offers a story from the federal agency in the US
responsible for student support. The director of the agency wanted
to transform morale and he stole an idea from the Disney

Every member of staff who works at Disney has a three-day induction
course when they join the company. They are told of how many lives
Disney’s work has touched. This was adapted by the student support
agency into an induction that now includes a film of all the
prominent people in American life who are the first in their
families to have gone to university. Staff are being told – that is
the value of your work.

That initiative could be repeated across public services here –
from local to central government there is an enormous history of
transforming opportunities and liberating individuals and
communities. If you don’t tell your own story, the danger is that
someone else will tell it for you.

1 Bob Stone, Confessions of a Civil Servant:
Lessons in Changing America’s Government and Military
, Rowman
& Littlefield, 2003

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