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The five paradigms for success as a government employee

By George Fripley - posted Monday, 30 June 2008

When starting out in government it is vital that you familiarise yourself with these paradigms. Once you have mastered them, there is very little that will prevent you from having a long and rewarding career in the public service. You may come across times where you can see that a certain paradigm could be broken, however this should only be done where it allows you to implement one of the other paradigms.

Don’t make a decision

The first thing to realise in government, or any bureaucracy for that matter, is that making decisions is inherently dangerous and this sort of activity should be left to those who have enough experience to make them safely. This is perhaps the most important of the primary paradigms of government, and should be memorised by all public servants.

Not making a decision is not a deliberate way to make outside institutions, companies or individuals unhappy, it is a tried and tested method of ensuring that you do not inhibit your career path within government.


Making a decision could be a seriously career-limiting move, particularly if you get it wrong. Nobody remembers correct decisions, but everybody remembers who made a bad decision!

If a decision is made it is likely to change the status quo and could potentially lead to the need for actions to be undertaken. You may therefore increase someone’s workload, most worrying of all, your own.

Quick decisions will often lead to hasty and ill-considered reallocation of resources and consequential stress and trouble for public servants. A decision that allows for the business planning and overall budgetry cycle, or the legislative review process, to run timelines for change, is a far less painful method of achieving change - in the unlikely event that change is thought necessary.

In addition to this there are external reasons for delaying decisions. While private industry will complain that decisions take too long, when a decision is made quickly there are also likely to be complains from this sector. For instance, the increasing of charges, the changing of regulations, and the introduction of new legislation will cause tremendous reaction from the private sector industries. They will not be prepared and will therefore find reason to complain or they will not have factored increased costs into their budgets, and therefore find reason to complain. In addition to this there are likely to be unforseen consequences that will cause the private sector to complain.

Cover your arse

If you are forced into a corner and find yourself required to make a decision, you need to make sure that the decision, and its potential ramifications, cannot be traced back to you.

This applies no matter how small the decision is, or how insignificant the consequences may appear to be.


You never know when a seemingly small issue will blow up into a huge palaver that sucks in your manager, the Director, the Chief Executive Officer, or even the Minister. The less attention that comes your way, the less chance there is that you will be the subject of criticism.

Show no initiative

Initiative is a dangerous thing, and showing it is very close to decision-making in its potential to inhibit your career. So always follow the established processes and procedures.

Things are done the way they are for a particular reason. This reason may simply be because they’ve always been done that way, but to try and change, or even improve, procedures is likely to cause confusion and additional work for other people. It will therefore win you no friends. Your supervisor will not look kindly on you and this can seriously impact on your career prospects.

If word gets out that you have tried to change things, you may also find that other areas within government avoid you and appear reluctant to employ you. It is far better to follow the standard procedures, no matter how arcane or impractical, and ensure that you fit in with your work colleagues.

Use the most remote method of communication possible

With advancement of communication technologies it has become increasingly possible to limit your actual face to face contact with “outsiders” to a staggeringly large degree. The more contact you have with people outside of government, or even within government (as there are those within government who will do their utmost to have you break the paradigms in their own push to avoid career-limiting moves), the more likely it is that you will be forced into a position of decision-making. Therefore contact should be as remote as possible. See the chapter on communication for an outline of your options.

Make sure nobody really knows what you do

If you can keep your job as vague as possible, you will avoid the need to justify your position and you’ll be able to pass on almost all the work requests that you receive to other people with more defined roles. This reduces the need for decision-making, makes covering your arse easier; removes the need to deal with issues and potentially show initiative; and reduces the number of people that you will have to communicate with. Where you do have to carry out tasks, the use of jargon will add a delightful vagueness to whatever you write and keep everyone guessing about what it is that you actually do.

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About the Author

George Friplely has worked in the public service for more than eight years, and in that time has risen to the dizzying heights of managing an agency (for a brief period of time). He has a great deal of experience in dealing with the day-to-day decision-making processes and has a wealth of knowledge about government process. He is currently in hiding among the stacks of files in his government department, hoping that his revelations do not cause him to become the subject of an ASIO investigation, or worse still, that somebody realises that he actually exists and sends some work his way! George blogs at and George's thoughts on government and bureaucracy are now available in the definitive government employees manual, You Can't Polish A Turd - the Civil Servant's Manual, published by Night Publishing. His next book provisionally titled The Dregs of History is due for release in 2011.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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