The play, which was informed by interviews with public servants, focuses on Ottawa’s bureaucracy during the Harper administration, but its central themes reflect some of the realities of working in any large, rule-bound, and complex organization. In reality, of course, the picture is much more mixed. There is a lot of creative, collaborative and high-impact work occurring in our public service organizations, albeit alongside pockets of risk aversion and lament about a lost “golden age” of public service.
Madge is fresh out of grad school, committed and passionate about public service. She’s eager to make a difference, keen to gather the evidence for her research assignment on transporting asparagus, and willing to speak truth to power ASAP. Madge’s youthful exuberance and belief in the evidence-trumps-all school of policy making runs up against Cynthia her by-the-book senior manager, who pines for the good old days of more “authentic” policy-making. Lois is ranked between the two and is Madge’s immediate supervisor. Lois is the pragmatist who has seen it all in government and understands Madge’s spark as much as she does Cynthia’s tired resignation. She is looking for more work-life balance, watching her diet and getting through the day.
I’m not a theatre reviewer (see J. Kelly Nestruck’s Globe and Mail Review) but I’ve seen a few policy initiatives rise and fall and have been found wandering, lost in a maze of government offices more often than I’d care to admit. The office maze and the overall sets for the play are defined by the actors’ almost continuous repositioning of rolling cubicle walls which, in itself, is an impressive piece of choreography.
For me the quickly changing sets in this play are also a metaphor for the rapidly changing world in which public servants and their political leaders must now work – one driven by the rapid sharing of digital information and 24-hour news, with the hot mustard of social media. This is a world in which public service organizations need more Madges together with more senior managers who will coach and nurture their staff, growing their skills, thus maintaining their enthusiasm rather than extinguishing it. There are lots of managers like this in the public service already but still far too many junior public servants who are left wondering what happened to their policy memo and how they can make a difference in organizations that are ripe with promise, but sometimes stiflingly over-cautious.