I’ve been a civil servant for ten years this summer. Ten years. How did that happen?!
When I joined, all those summers ago, it was a panic move. I had finished uni, realised that I wasn’t cut out for the world of drama and theatre studies, and that my degree hadn’t prepared me for it anyway. I knew I wanted to travel and I knew I wanted a steady income. So it was between British Airways and the civil service. Aren’t I glad they didn’t think I would make a good flight attendant (though I was gutted at the time).
I used to strut down Whitehall in my crisp suits. I was preppy, brighteyed, enthusiastic. I had a brilliant first job sorting out conferences for the powerful. I got winked at by George Bush you know. I was dating an awful man twice my age who almost broke me that summer. I had to crash into my sisters’ spare room and into her life, a bundle of tears and uncertainly and relief.
I felt so grown up, rushing around those corridors of power. Figuring out my place. Getting stuff done. But I was a baby. Innocent, thin skinned, fragile. Wrapped up in the excitement of it all. Just like our wee one year old is now: finding his feet, wobbling on shaky legs. Blinking back tears as I got told ‘that’s not how we do it here’ more times than I can remember. And for a while I believed it. Wrinkle free, kid free, responsibility free. I met a new man, an arrogant, posh man who wore suits everyday and took himself seriously. Thankfully, he wasn’t interested in me having just come out of a long relationship. I had new friends, we drank cocktails like water, we hung out on the Southbank, we saw so much theatre that summer. Life was ace.
If then I was a baby taking my first tentative steps onto the career ladder, then I must be coming of age now. Things are about to get stroppy. It’ll be a relief when that teenage ‘I know everything’ attitude kicks in because that’ll take an awful lot of worry out of my decision making. But I guess my career is also about to get spots, mood swings and get a bit experimental.
Standard practice in my department is that jobs change every few years; so that we become jacks of all trades. It’s not good for someone like me who likes a bit more certainty. That time is coming up for me. Similarly, we are talking to the boys about their next school year, new teachers, new classrooms, new expectations. They are much cooler about it than I am. I need to apply that same level of inevitability to my work. A new boss is just like getting a new teacher. A new job is like a new class. And in this new teenage career phase, I’ve got choice, responsibility, my own front door key. But there are still plenty of adults around to make sure I don’t do anything too dangerous.
The suited man turned out to be quite special. Another life decision that I would never have predicted. The years have flown by, as have the babies. Now I work from home in track suit bottoms. I make more important decisions and care less about my shoes. I worry about reports, progress, bullying when I should be writing reports, taking steps to progression and tackling bullying in the workplace.
I love being part of a machinery that I believe is trying to do good. I’ve had amazing experiences and fantastic opportunities. I believe I can make a difference. But it is faulted of course. It makes mistakes. It takes forever to make change. As with all the public services, in a time of austerity, it relies on people to ‘do more with less’. I work to the bone because of professional pride and accept a painful salary because I want to make life a bit better for someone else. I told my team this week that I am in a constant state of ‘not delivering’ because while I’m finishing one high profile piece of work, there are already 5 more major projects building up. We swing from one priority to the next. I’ve felt so much responsibility on my shoulders, which Rich says are as hard as stone. I passed the edge of my limits months ago.
This week, 2 million public workers went on strike. I was hugely relieved to have a day off. I went to rally with firefighters, teachers, social workers and loads more. The feeling of exhaustion was overwhelming: we are doing our best, but we are totally shattered. No one joins the public services to become rich, but we need a living wage. We need enough staff and enough resources to deliver our jobs properly. The people who stood with me make genuine life or death decisions. They are responsible for the care of our most vulnerable. Do we want them pushed to the limits of exhaustion? Overwhelmed? Worried about making their own ends meet?
As I stood with my 5yo on my shoulders, him clapping along with the crowd, me with tears in my eyes, the strength in solidarity washed over me again. The strength of standing together is beautiful. And all these people want to do stuff for others; collect their rubbish, alphabetise their library books, teach their kids, sort out their driving licenses, save them from a burning building. The least we can do is give them a salary that rises with inflation. Its not much to ask for. It’s a no brainer.