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No Job is Small
Why many young people who join the government get frustrated working on the 'menial' and possible ways to deal with it.
Many young professionals who join the government from non-traditional routes with specialized degrees in policy or data get disappointed when they are tasked with preparing presentations, file-work and writing minutes.
It is understandable. You join fresh with ideals, armed with degrees and here you are doing routine file-work. It is frustrating.
At first, it is a problem of expectation setting. There isn't a single fix or magic trick that's going to fix things which have been wrong for decades and globally. Rather, governments or rather other big organizations are kept running by showing up and doing the routine and mechanical. Sometimes you are being your most useful when you are doing small-jobs. So one approach is to suck it up and just do it. The routine may not be your idea of change, but much good comes out of just keeping the systems running.
Many juniors are tasked with writing minutes of meetings. It is not an enviable task. But if I care about a project, I go out of my way to ensure I get to write the minutes. A task which many are happy to offload. Writing actionable and precise minutes is an art. Granted, I've not seen people referring to minutes in consecutive meetings unless there is a conflict. But rest assured, conflicts are many. Governments don't use JIRA to manage software requirements or other task management tools for actionables. In that context, minutes are powerful levers to exploit.
PowerPoint presentations too are routine work and generally juniors get tasked with first drafts and managing revisions. These are generally review presentations. Deciding how and which information will be presented, KPIs, narrative are powerful policy/data levers. Granted, you don't get a complete control on the presentation, but you do get a say. Some presentation templates or KPIs which I initiated in my first department are still being used years later and have become for now, systemic.
The routine is not only can be the site of change itself, but it also can open meaningful and grounded pathways to larger changes. I got most of my cherished wins at work because of doing such 'small' work. The work closest to my heart was kick-started because I happened to be the fastest typist in the room.
In 2018, I was hired at PMGSY to explore the use of GIS algorithms in selection of rural road investments. They had almost completed the digitization of the rural road network & habitations on GIS and the new leadership wanted to find a meaningful use of it for a new Rs 80,000 Cr scheme under ideation. My typing speed made me the ideal candidate to type and maintain changes in the overall policy guidelines as seniors/committees discussed and deliberated. Having such intimate access to the process allowed me to understand the whole picture and also chip in changes in the overall policy which impacted the planning process and ensure my algorithmic intervention was within context and backed by policy.
A strong part of data/policy work is to scope out problem statements and rarely people vocalize the root causes explicitly. As someone who has come from outside of the system and probably on a small tenure, catching up to the context is really important. There is much to be unlearned and learned about the government. These "small jobs" allow juniors to be in rooms they wouldn't be in generally, learn and absorb information. The key is to read between the lines and listening to murmurs. This makes the “routine” an important way of initation.
Routine doesn’t always open pathways though. I have a core domain expertise (tech, data science) which lets me step away from the *operational* when I wish to because few in this office would be able to do my core work. But I know colleagues who've been overtime spending most of their time in such work and remain unsatisfied or feel underutilized.
There lies one of the problems with hiring young people in the government: retention and job satisfaction. While, NITI might have figured out the branding and gets many people to apply, I know first-hand many people who were hired but now feel under-utilized and frustrated. While, there is an expectation setting problem, the government also needs to setup pathways for young people to move higher up or get responsibilities matching their skillsets. Why listen to an external management consultant with minimal context of your exact problem when you can ask help from your own intiated young professionals who’ve done the work and may have ideas. This needs to be fixed soon, otherwise government will remain just a launch pad for careers in think tanks, management consulting or grad schools.