New documentaries from the U.S. and Canada show government workers with creative careers on the side.
Some government jobs offer so much opportunity for accomplishment that they are worth more-than-full-time effort. But more often the opportunity of a government job is to put in a modest level of effort, leaving time for family responsibilities or side projects. Filmmakers in the U.S. and Canada have just released documentaries about the creative side projects of government workers.
The American production is Creative Feds, which features two government workers who are musicians on the side. It shows each performing with their bands at festivals, dances, and in one case a National Public Radio show, demonstrating that these side projects are not mere hobbies, but serious commitments that have met with some success. (Screenings of Creative Feds are listed at http://creativefeds.com/screenings/ )
Jennifer Cutting in Creative Feds
The Canadian production is a web series entitled The Secret Lives of Public Servants. Three episodes have been released so far, featuring government workers who on the side are an artist, a comic book creator and a cosplayer. All the episodes touch on the tension between the workers’ creative side projects and the conformity expected in their government jobs. This is particularly the case for the artist, Marc Adornato, whose art is explicitly political and triggered a police investigation of one of his public performance projects. (The police report concluded that performance art is not a crime.) The episodes are available at http://amenjafri.com/2017/11/19/the-secret-lives-of-public-servants/
Marc Adornato in The Secret Lives of Public Servants
The filmmakers for both of these projects said part of their motivation was to show the public that government employees are full human beings, rather than the stereotype of faceless bureaucrats. But there is a more important message for public sector workers ourselves. We do not need to wait until we can afford to leave secure government jobs before seriously pursuing our ambitions, whether they are artistic careers like the people portrayed in these documentaries or any other aspirations. A government job puts some constraints on our side projects, in terms of time, conformity and otherwise, but the documentaries show that we can work around those constraints.
Public administration practitioners can be more successful if we learn from each others’ experience and inventions. We can look to medical doctors and to software developers for two ways practitioners can learn from each other.
The first way is case reports, as are published in medical journals. A case report is a description by a practitioner of a situation she encountered, what she did about it, and the results. Case reports are different than the case studies used in public administration teaching and scholarship. Case studies focus on the information about a case that illuminates a technique being taught or a theory being considered, but one value of case reports is presenting specifics that do not fit any existing framework. For example, AIDS research started with a case report of an inexplicable case of Kaposi’s sarcoma. Another difference is that case studies are typically by a researcher who was not involved in the events, while a case report is by a practitioner who handled the case.
A second way is open source work products. The narrowest definition of open source is disclosing the human-readable “source code” of a computer program. But open source has evolved a broader meaning, in which any type of work product is shared publicly, so that any interested person can contribute improvements to it. The work products that public administrators could make available to each other for open source collaboration include procedures, position descriptions for personnel, statements of work for contracting, and any number of other artifacts we produce and use in our practice. Center for Public Administrators is experimenting with open source collaboration on “annotated work instructions” as an alternative to ISO 9000. (See Project on Annotated Work Instructions.)
For more about case reports and open source work products in public administration, see my article in Public Administration Review (paywalled) or the open access version.
Most practitioners never attend any of the public administration academic conferences, but it could be well worth your time. And if you attend, it makes sense to give a presentation. My new working paper advises why to present, and how to do it successfully.
Here are some excerpts:
Presenting at a conference is evidence of your expertise. This is especially useful if your job does not provide much opportunity for accomplishments that are recognized outside your organization.
Many people practicing public administration were educated in a different field, so a conference can be an introduction to the public administration professional community..[T]he people you meet…tend to be the most innovative practitioners, the best prospects for collaboration within and outside your job, and the most willing to share information.
A practitioner can present her own experience with techniques she has applied or cases she has participated in. A frank presentation of what she tried, what worked, what failed and what she observed can show other practitioners what they want to copy or avoid, and can show academics a specific instance of phenomena they might want to study more generally…Your new information does not need to be broad in scope to be valid and valuable.
[A]fter your proposal is accepted and your panel is scheduled, you should do outreach to encourage people attending the conference to come to your panel. If you know anybody who will be at the conference, then contact them personally to invite them to attend your panel. If somebody on another panel is speaking on a topic related to yours, then contact them to say you are looking forward to attending their panel and suggest that they attend yours.
I also give examples of presentations by practitioners at the 2015 Northeast Conference on Public Administration (NECoPA), which I helped organize.
The working paper “Public Administration Practitioners at Academic Conferences: Why to Present and How to Succeed” is at