Success in the Public Service

“Well, this is going to be uniquely awkward.”

“Yeah, but we’ve gotta go – if you and I don’t, there might be nobody, and besides, isn't your turn soon too.”

None us looked forward to Murray’s retirement coffee and donuts thing.  We liked him and wished him well, but winced when thinking of his career in the Castorian public service.

Murray worked diligently and had been a pleasant enough colleague.  Yet he was an embarrassment.

No other member of our team and perhaps no one in the history of our department and its various predecessors had failed so miserably in the eyes of senior management.  Murray Singer had never once gained executive approval for his program or policy proposals and recommendations.  

Granted our department’s senior executives enjoyed a reputation for vigorous, some might say punishing, review processes.  Typically, an official with a new idea would be questioned to exhaustion on increasingly tedious detail and tangential issues. All of us struggled. But Murray stood out as a singular failure in this setting.

“He could never seem to get it right or catch on,” my colleague said. “If he hadn’t been so good at implementation and doing actual, non-presentation work, I’m sure they would have dumped him years ago.”

As I said, we still liked him, and we often volunteered to work on his projects. That is, those projects assigned to him after his own proposals had been rejected by management.

We felt sorry for Murray and that was one reason we all pitched in to help him.  But we also knew that whatever he had been told to do had in a de facto way been approved and would thus not need to go through the process of executive review.  We also knew that Murray was such a failure that he posed no professional threat and that we could afford to help him without impinging on our own career aspirations.  Still, this day, we approached the second-floor boardroom, the smell of coffee, and boxes of donuts with unease.

No executives or senior managers would be there.  A colleague, who had served as acting director during vacation time last summer, would preside and be charged with finding words to describe Murray’s career with some generosity.  The woman was to present a 30-year service pin, but even this formality would have an awkward tinge.  Murray was retiring with 34 years of service and had not received his three-decade recognition earlier because of administrative oversight.

The one-time acting director did well unveiling the pin with great flair as if it meant something and was not overdue.  Then Murray was invited to speak before the assembled half dozen.

“Colleagues, you have touched me with your presence here today, and I will miss you dearly,” Murray said. “But I have to say that most of all, I will miss – in a painful and wrenching way – the work – this wonderful avenue to have an impact and to influence life in our beloved Castoria.”

He continued.

“It has been a remarkable career, and I feel truly blessed,” Murray continued with wet eyes. “Everywhere I look I see national programs and institutions shaped by my work and ideas.”

Behind me, I heard mumbling and whispering.  They spoke of the possibility our honoree had been drinking or was in a midst of a breakdown.

“Of course, I see my influence most vividly in our department, in its processes, its management structures, and its governance systems,” Murray added. “Although I have not been asked, I feel obliged to share some of my experience and methods with you all before I retire, particularly with the hope of benefiting the younger generation.”

Confused discomfort filled the room, and then he concluded.

“More than anything else, my great success and profound influence on our department, our government, and our country rests on one technique – and one technique only," said Murray. "In every study or project I have taken to our senior management, I have gone into the room advocating for the option I detest – the thing I do not want to happen.  And of course, they'd always pick the opposite- the option I really wanted - they'd tell me in stern words to implement it and then give me the resources it needed."

"Trust me, it really works,” he added.

Eyes squinted, brows furrowed, throats dried, and we shook his hand, filed out of the room, and headed back to the cubicles absorbing what had been said and what it meant.

“You were right,” said my colleague. “Uniquely awkward it was.