If you’ve ever spent any length of time lamenting the country’s public services, you wouldn’t be the only one. I’ll admit that I’ve definitely been a person who has bemoaned the way that things are run, inevitably coming up with suggestions that would immeasurably improve circumstances if somebody would only have the sense to consider it. We moan about the attitudes of the police, or how long it takes for an ambulance to arrive, how awful the NHS is, how the Councils never do anything about our complaints. It’s so easy to do, seeing the difficulties in our society and expecting that they can be resolved at our first request. As I say, I’ve done it myself.
That is until I worked in public service myself.
Having previously worked in local government, I’ve been on the receiving end of some of the very same criticisms that I had previously levelled at my public officers. And, on one hand, that’s actually a really positive thing. I often felt humbled by how engaged and proud of a community its members could be; enough to take time out of their busy lives to attend public meetings and read legislation and be aware of what was happening around them. It’s commendable, in fact necessary, to hold those with power to account and request that they assist you in making the town/city/country a better place. However, it can also be pretty tough when you’re the one being shouted at.
It’s tough because, although the community wants to be involved, they don’t always agree on what it is that they actually want. It’s difficult because not everybody understands the infinite amounts of bureaucracy and red tape that render decision-making an absolute minefield, something which officers on the ground often have very little control over. It’s hard because nobody takes into account that, since the government cuts, you’re doing your own work as well as the work of three people who were made redundant before you. It’s frustrating because people aren’t aware that you are constantly having to go through restructures or re-apply for your position which can change your job role, your team, and your remit, all of which contribute to stress, anxiety, and a subconscious need to prove yourself a worthy employee.
So, when I see ridiculous articles about the police actually taking a dinner break, or an angry note being left on an ambulance window screen because they were blocking somebody’s driveway, it makes me so frustrated. Whilst I strongly believe that public services should be subject to scrutiny, I honestly feel that we’ve reached a ‘fever pitch’ level of critique in these instances. Even worse, this criticism is often misplaced by being targeted towards the officers who aren’t even able to affect the wider social or organisational change being demanded of them. However, what hurts the most is this insinuation that public servants are just freeloaders who prance around gleefully spending taxpayers money. Of course there are people who fit this description, but generally nothing could be further from the truth. I worked alongside people from various public services during my time in local government and I saw the sheer dedication from officers who genuinely wanted to help and had a personal mission to make positive changes to society.
I was one of those people.
I willingly went into addresses where I left covered in urine and shit, I crawled into properties on my hands and knees through rubbish and pigeon faeces to make sure there were no vulnerable individuals in there, I was shouted at, sworn at, and called names. I lay in bed at night worrying about my clients, I heard their sob stories, carried around their emotional baggage, and continued to work with people who scared me so much that I had to call the police, or were so nasty that they reduced me to tears. I heard stories from police colleagues about violent arrests, about threats and personal vendettas, about being spat at and punched and abused. I felt the frustrations of being spread too thinly, of working too late, of taking work home with us, and of not having the resources to be able to properly help people due to funding cuts.r
Yet, despite this, these people still go into work every single day and stay true to their purpose of trying to make positive change. Not only do they do this in the face of the constant crap that comes with the territory, they now do it within a culture of fear that permeates every decision they make. A fear that they are going to be the next in line to be shipped off to another branch which is further away from their family, or the fear that they’re going to be made redundant if they don’t work overtime or extra shifts. The fear that they are going to be called up to answer a judicial review or an ombudsman investigation, or that they are going to be hauled through the press or dragged to a court case. Constantly having to consider whether you did everything you possibly could and record every minute detail so that you’ve got evidence in case you ever get sued is exhausting.
Maybe I’m wrong but I feel like public services used to be appreciated and that the officers were considered important members of the community. Now, it seems like public servants are just there to be blamed for anything and everything the public wish to throw at them. The stories mentioned above demonstrate what is almost delight in the ‘failings’ of public services, with any opportunity to drag them over the coals being joyfully accepted. It’s such a shame.
Don’t get me wrong, I am so glad that I got the chance to work for a public service because it opened my eyes a lot. Part of that learning was to do with how difficult it can be to work in that type of role which gave me a new found respect for people I’d previously moaned about. It’s so important that we draw a line between holding our public services to account and hanging officers out to dry. These are people who are trying to do right by us, we need to do right by them through giving them the freedom to work without fear of recrimination or embarrassing headlines.
Let’s consider the context and make a decision about whether shouting at an officer is going to get us anywhere (it isn’t). We should try to remember that they’re likely to be a member of the same community as us, with the same concerns and fears for their own families. Let’s be considerate of the fact they’ve probably already dealt with more confrontation that week than somebody else may experience in a lifetime.
Working in public service is hard and it’s time we remembered that people who dedicate their lives to these professions are worthy of our respect and dignity and aren’t just scapegoats to be beaten into submission.
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