Do we want public servants to be authentic?

Catherine Needham


A recent article in The Conversation highlighted how recent management thinking has condemned hierarchy and encouraged workers to be authentic and spontaneous in the workplace.

As the author Andre Spicer puts it,
‘The hope was to develop a workplace where you could “be yourself”. Instead of being bureaucrats who stick to the rules, employees could become “authentocrats” whose job is to express themselves…’

Although the article is focused on private sector employment, such statements seem ever more true for public services which are expected to be relational and responsive to the ‘whole person’. Relational services could be seen as those in which  ‘authentic’ connections are made between people using and providing services.

However Spicer goes on to argue, ‘Because employees are asked to bring themselves to work, there is a very blurry line between personal issues and professional issues. Because you should be passionate about what you do, it is not clear when you are working and when you are not. This often means work begins to bleed out into people’s personal lives – often quickly taking them over and leaving little room left for non-work related pursuits. But it also means we come to have unrealistic expectations of what we might get from work or indeed our workplace.’ He cites research showing that employees ‘had over-invested their whole sense of self in their work, then they often developed very fragile self-esteem which could not be fulfilled by any amount of praise.’

Similarly in public services more relational ways of working create challenges for traditional notions of professionalism . Professional detachment has been associated with ‘self-care’ and emotional resilience for public service workers, and workers may struggle with relational approaches which appear to demand a transgression of boundaries.

Care work provides clear examples of the tensions between relating/emoting and maintaining distance. Agency care workers are told by their employers that they have to be ‘professional’ and ensure that care relationships do not become friendships, but this may contribute to task-based care which ignores the ‘whole person’. Personal assistants have more opportunity to build intimacy as time spent with an employer in a home setting contributes to emotional closeness. But a number of studies have highlighted the difficulties which personal assistants may experience in establishing boundaries and appropriate working practices. As Leece argues, ‘…the direct employment relationships were designed by employers primarily to serve their own interests, and the friendly, family-type arrangements they created resulted in obligations that made it difficult for workers to exit the arrangement, despite the many shortcomings of their position.’ (2010, p.202) This may be particularly the case for migrant workers.

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