Can public servants take a break from being APOLITICAL?

This article was originally published here as a winning article of a competition organised by Apolitical for women writing about innovative leadership in government.

We need to elect more women – so why not vote for a public servant?

If you’re reading this, you probably belong to a tribe of female public servants. Let me know if you also recognise that, as women, we bring a different quality of leadership and contribute to making our society more inclusive, sustainable and compassionate. We love to express, connect and contribute.

But have you ever asked yourself where your commitment to public service begins and where it ends?

I believe it’s time we consider stretching our responsibility beyond our job. Is it an outrageous or admirable experiment? I am convinced that the times are over when a nine-to-five job was all it took to “be the change we wish to see in the world” and switch seamlessly from our working lives to our private identities.

Especially in this era. And for me personally, especially after having worked as Brexit coordinator for three years, wondering what we could have done differently to prevent this. Especially after an investigative journalist, Ján Kuciak, and his fiancée were killed in my home country, Slovakia, leaving hundreds of thousands demonstrating and wondering how much more crime it will take for corruption to stop.

The tipping point

I always pride myself on belonging to a tribe of people whose heart beats “public service”. Unlike in politics, the policy crowd drives change from behind the scenes of the media spotlight. What does it take for us, public servants, to show up publicly for our commitment? Last year, I hit that tipping point. It got bad enough to just keep watching.

I decided to run as a candidate in the 2019 European Parliament elections. To offer different  communication about the EU, to walk the talk of feminine values, professionalism and authentic commitment to represent my compatriots in Brussels.

Staying in my comfort zone, tweeting now and then, debating the undemocratic developments in our society from cafes, would not have been enough.

I am lucky that my institution enabled me to take an unpaid leave of absence and put my public service on hold in order to become a voice for a new quality of European leadership. I know this may not be the case in all public administrations. I felt the calling to do it and fortunately received the space to step up my game.

“I decided to take on this challenge, despite the warnings about how bad it would be for a woman to enter an arena that is pre-made for the mindset, attitude and operating methods of men.”

Like building a political startup

Being an entrepreneur is hard. So is being a political candidate. Being a woman running for election is (still) even more difficult. But being a public servant turned into a candidate is a whole different challenge.

Imagine the ingredients needed to build a successful business – branding strategy, fundraising, accounting, recruitment, leadership, event management – and mix it with a dose of politics: the good and bad of competition, online hatred, anti-campaigns, constant judgment and setting boundaries to who you wish to be in this fight.

Including the pros and cons of being a loyal and professional public servant in your heart, with your ex-colleagues serving as permanent watchdogs of your campaign.

Still, it’s the most fulfilling self-expression experience. Being a public servant rarely comes with an opportunity to express personal views on controversial topics and learn to do so in a truthful yet appealing way. Finding and expressing that voice is like stepping outside of a matrix that you will never go back into.

This is the energy shift we see emerging at all levels across our society. It is great to see more changemakers willing to pluck up the courage and run for office.

And it’s the ultimate personal development challenge. Campaigning hurts. But it would be more painful to just watch the madness shifting the European discourse in a direction where I don’t want to see it going. Not just for myself. For future generations.

Just like I would not be sitting in my Brussels office if previous generations hadn’t fought for the 2004 enlargement round, making Slovakia and nine other countries members of the EU. We now have an obligation to rise up to populists and offer the feminine leadership that citizens deserve.

So is the era of a woman here?

Yes and no. Yes in all those inspiring women empowerment circles that I am part of. Together, we co-create a shift that elevates the consciousness of our organisations and society, politics included.

However, it is not yet the case on the ground. It is not in the visibility that political parties are willing to grant their female candidates, in the daily decisions of many of us when choosing who to vote for on election day, sponsor on their path or support in the face of online hate.

What’s next?

I feel called to continue sharing about my journey, inquiring about the role of public service in times of crisis and possibly inspiring others to speak up. It is most rewarding to receive invitations to continue being a voice and to witness decisions of my colleagues to become more active citizens, including political activism.

“If this resonates with you, I urge you to consider embarking on a new self-expression journey and reach out for support”

I would never have been able to float through this challenge had it not been for the personal development that I had been investing in for years and the support of my peers.

As women, we fall, learn, get up and do it again. Now I am at the disposal of all other women who would benefit from coaching from somebody with her own skin in the game.

Are we still apolitical?

It is paradoxical to conclude this reflection for Apolitical with a question about the boundaries of the apolitical nature of public servants. I serve as a politically unbiased professional, but I am also conscious of the “realpolitik” developments impacting the context and feasibility of our work. I chose running for a political office as a form of social activism.

If managed well, it does not interfere with the public service performance. I believe in our obligation and capacity to speak up in times where the sheer existence of the EU is questioned and even threatened.

Being a professional and an active citizen are not mutually exclusive, but mutually reinforcing qualities. Political self-expression can be one of the forms of this activism. Another form that I’ve recently embarked on is launching my podcast Lights on Europe, aiming to shed light on the human story behind European policy-making.

Dear reader, do you agree that feminine leadership in public service could also contribute to shifting the taboos around the political activism of us, female public servants?

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