Working on social policy in 2017 feels a bit like folding propaganda flyers into origami so they’ll look prettier — Band-Aid solutions for gaping global social wounds and inequities. All around us, people are donating their professional services, stepping in to fill the gaps where government can’t act or isn’t reaching. Lawyers are offering free help to refugee claimants, doctors and nurses are offering free medical care and medic support for rallies, and programmers are coding Web-scraping tools to capture open data hosted south of the border before it is deleted for good.

When people talk about what skills they’ll offer in a zombie apocalypse, I joke that I’ll handle trade negotiations or writing manifestos. So, in the year of mass protest and resistance, what can policy wonks really do to help?

Some public sector employees already play a public role in our communities during work hours (think librarians, firefighters and front-line staff at service counters), but policy analysts, researchers, scientists and communications advisers tend to work behind the scenes. As public servants, we are bound by the values and ethics of our profession; at some levels of government, this is a literal oath that we take when we’re hired. We provide nonpartisan, apolitical, evidence-based advice to our elected officials, who are accountable to Canadians for the work of their employees (“fearless advice, loyal implementation” is our unofficial slogan). Our profession demands that we do not misrepresent or undermine our bosses, even in our off time, and that we do not act with conflict of interest or the appearance of conflict.

Many in my generation of bureaucrats are trying to figure how to navigate and balance our role in democracy as public servants and private citizens.

But as the public gets more engaged in policy issues, it is more important than ever for public servants to translate what we do and why; to explain the procedural, legal and ethical constraints that bind us; and to show the sweat and tears that go into the making of government. Many in my generation of bureaucrats are trying to figure how to navigate and balance our role in democracy as public servants and private citizens, our professional online presence and our personal one, our day job and our volunteer side projects. It’s complicated, and it’s critical to the future of our profession.

I believe that, outside of the most senior ranks, public servants can play a valuable informal role in our communities, explaining, communicating and putting a human face on the workings of small-g government and the people that operate it. In some of my circles, I am the only bureaucrat so, by default, the person people call when they are frustrated or caught in a web of red tape. Government is a complex, opaque machine, and unless you speak the language, even public websites and documents can be difficult for non-bureaucrats to decode.

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Some initiatives are trying to change this. Plain-language policies encourage reducing jargon and legalese whenever possible, and user-centred designers are working to make government websites and applications more intuitive to navigate. Under their open government commitments, some jurisdictions are making data and internal documents available and actively seeking public input on policies and programs. And although public service is still a lifelong career for many, some programs are encouraging porousness in government and career flexibility, recruiting people with specific expertise for shorter stints or mid-career moves.

The new Code for Canada fellowship will bring digital and data experts inside the walls for a 10-month fellowship, beginning with the Ontario provincial government. The Toronto Urban Fellowship brings urban policy experts and planners into the municipal government for a year of rotational placements. This fluidity brings new ideas and perspectives inside, but it also equips leaders in other sectors with hard-to-access knowledge of how government works. Inside, participants have a chance to learn the gritty mechanics of government’s operations and its Orwellian buzzwords, instead of the theoretical diagrams of civics class.

This year, my personal activism is to hang out my shingle as an unofficial bureaucracy counsellor and translator, a public-servant-in-residence in the community instead of an ivory tower technocrat. Trying to figure out how to write a grant application or understand how employment insurance and social assistance work? Seeking direction on which part of government is responsible for the issue you care about? Want to learn how to participate in public consultations? Need to translate gov-speak into plain language? I won’t divulge state secrets, but in my off-hours I can be a friendly, accessible face of the machinery, a public public servant. And I hope my colleagues will join me. My fellow wonks, I promise that we are not the least useful people in an apocalypse.

Photo: Shutterstock/Ellagrin

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Nisa Malli
Nisa Malli is a senior policy analyst at the Brookfield Institute. Previously she has worked for federal and municipal governments and managed nonprofit digital literacy programs.

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