• If government can be joyful for those who work there, performance will improve and help create public trust, says @GPCwa
  • Governments will fail to become more efficient and effective if the people tasked to make that happen feel joyless at work, says @GPCwa
  • A more joyful government paves the way for a more trustworthy government, which will enable more people’s lives to flourish, says @GPCwa

30-second summary 

  • Government Performance Consortium is a network of civic thinkers and government practitioners based at the University of Washington seeking to transform government from the inside out.
  • Their research has established that a defining human experience of working inside government can be summed up by the term “emotional waste”, which they believe lies at the root of the structural and process issues that create public distrust and poor performance. 
  • Accessing and sustaining joy is essential for transforming the emotional experience of serving in government – the joy from pursuing a definite purpose, and the joy that stimulates exploration, challenge-seeking, and the struggle to overcome great difficulties.

Joy. That’s what’s missing from our government.

On a rainy November afternoon, twelve people from eight local governments squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder around a long table in a narrow conference room at the University of Washington Tacoma. After shaking off the usual tensions of the workplace, they began to smile and nod as they went around the table expressing what they needed from the group and what they were willing to give. There was a growing feeling of joy in the room – joy of seeing and being seen by peers who shared the same purpose and lived the same challenge.

For three years, we have been working with this group, along with over 1,200 government practitioners across Washington State. Through training forums, strategic conversations, and design workshops, we have been exploring the “next horizon” of modern government. It’s been quite a learning journey.

Transforming the emotional experience of life in government

We came to see that a defining human experience of working inside government can be summed up by the term “emotional waste”. What do we mean by that?

Few working in government can say they have not experienced the lonely reality of working in silos or the fear of uncertain change. Nor have they escaped the shame of being called not good enough or the frustration over ambiguous goals and abandoned values. And don’t forget the combination of workload stress and unclear expectations, cynicism about “flavour of the month” new initiatives, and despair at feeling small and invisible.

We think that emotional waste lies at the root of the structural and process issues that create public distrust and also helps explain why performance strategies often fall short of their aims. This means that transforming the emotional experience of serving in government is key to improving the performance of government.

So, how can we do this?

To start with, we can elevate the aspects of human experience – such as purpose, mastery and connection – that transcend management, measurement and accountability. Groups of people who cultivate these human aspects will far outperform groups who are simply adopting the latest management fad, and they will sustain that improvement and innovation over time.

Why joy works

Accessing and sustaining joy is essential for transforming the emotional experience of serving in government. The joy we are talking about is not the happy-go-lucky feeling we have when things are going well for the moment. Rather, we are talking about the joy that arises from pursuing a definite purpose, and the joy that stimulates exploration, challenge-seeking, and the struggle to overcome great difficulties.

We know from neuroscience that our perception, cognition, creativity, and ability to collaborate with others are all stronger when our brains are in a “towards” state, as opposed to a state of perceived threat. People in government have become conditioned to thinking as though they were under constant siege. As a result, we often fail to see the resources and assets that are readily available around us to solve problems at low or no cost.

Joy shifts our attention and focus from deficits to abundance, from doing things as they have always been done to trying a new way. Joy facilitates better and faster thinking than sorrow, despair, shame and fear. Joy also enables connection and cohesion, and deepens the well of compassion necessary to engage with change, conflict, and society’s most vexing challenges.

We envision a future where joy is the prevailing human experience of working in government. Governments will simply fail to become more efficient and effective if the people tasked to make that happen feel joyless at work. This future already exists, but only in small islands where seeds of joy have sprouted in an otherwise vast emotional wasteland. If we want a more vibrant society supported by a healthy, well-functioning government, we need to cultivate those seeds and connect those islands until the seeds of joy are thriving on a broad scale.

A joyful government is one in which the systems of work and the structures of relationships support healthy human dynamics and the development of individual and collective mastery. A joyful government invites and supports people in accessing and sustaining their inner sense of possibility, abundance, curiosity and spaciousness. A joyful government radically reimagines its purpose as the host of a generative space for humans to explore, grow and collaborate.

How to create joyful governments

Based on what we have learned so far, well designed and facilitated meetings where everyone can contribute their voice and intelligence are the basic levers for shifting the daily experience of work in government towards joy. Hosting communities where practitioners can learn safely and authentically in public creates the experience of joy through a deepening connection and mastery.

It also helps us to use a common language about what and how to communicate, and encourages personalised practices that improve people’s ability to make and see daily progress. Last but not least, cultivating mindfulness – our mind and body’s capacity for understanding, seeing and experiencing connections – makes accessing the inner energies of joy possible and durable for the committed practitioner.

Human flourishing inside government enables human flourishing outside government. Governments should build public trust by first building trust internally. We believe that a more joyful government paves the way for a more trustworthy government, which will enable more people’s lives to flourish.

Strategies for a More Joyful Government is our living-learning journal about how to create a better experience for people serving in government and achieve results that we all want and need from government. We invite you to join us in conversation and in continued learning and exploration.

Chelsea Lei and Larisa Benson are co-creators of the Government Performance Consortium, a vibrant network of civic thinkers and government practitioners seeking to transform government from the inside out. @GPCwa

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