Yesterday I had a lovely conversation with a client from south America about their social media communication plan. The client’s first name was Alexandre and I was surprised when I heard a female voice, as I thought it was a male name.
This was only mildly embarrassing but certainly comforting for somebody who carries a name that is female in almost any country but mine.
Andrea is still a very popular male name in Italy (we have no Andrew, Andy or André), and I thought it was a fine one until when I started working with international clients and partners.
Over time I have got used to the confusion. There have been funny moments too. For instance over 20 years ago when I got a lot of confidential information over the email from a German guy who thought he was making an impression on an Italian girl (actually, I never pretended I was a woman, I just avoided disclosing my gender). Or when I read the disillusionment on a driver’s face at the airport, when he thought he was picking up a nice lady. Or when one of the top managers in the company I was working for praised during an audioconference what I had done on a project, saying that “she was great”.
Now, why am I talking about this, besides sharing some of the pain and some of the fun of carrying a mostly female first name?
Because I want to talk about prejudice. As I was about to talk to Alexandre, I was assuming she was a man. In the same way, when people refer to government employees, government projects, government stories in general, there is an assumption that people are less smart, projects less successful, stories less convincing than in the commercial sector.
I have been fighting this prejudice throughout my career, both inside and outside government. I have met extraordinary individuals, driven people, beautiful minds who have devoted most of their life to working in government, and yet they may have made a fortune elsewhere.
People are good or bad, more or less bright, more or less intellectually honest irrespective of the job they do. Many claim that the job safety in the public sector attracts people who aim at a quieter life and moderate workloads. And yet each of us meets everyday police officers and firefighters who risk their lives, underpaid public school teachers that put all their passion to help their students, case workers that go out of their way to solve difficult situations, nurses who accept impossible shifts to deal with budget cuts. And the list goes on and on.
Of course there are also people who don’t care, those who use procedures and regulations as an excuse to work less. But I would argue that they are just a tiny minority. Or, better, they are a tiny minority in places where government employees are valued, and considered as an asset rather than a liability.
Today’s technologies offer a unique opportunity to value people in government. While many look just at how technology can reduce costs by increasing productivity, e.g. by deploying more online services, the real question is what technology can do to make employees more productive as well as innovative and passionate. Social software, as a means to gather knowledge across organizational boundaries, is a case in point. There are plenty of initiatives tagged as gov 2.0, and they can pave the way: but what we need is for every single employee to have the ability to improve the way he or she works and how he or she contributes to government outcomes.
I do hope for a future where people won’t assume that Andrea is a woman and that a government employee is any less than a colleague in the commercial sector. I will fight for the latter, not for the former.