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'This year’s resolution is to see the power in the little things'

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Well I don’t know about you but I am going to try to do a lot more swimming.

And I may - I am not wholly committed to this one yet but it’s certainly something I am considering - try to eat less chocolate. Any of the big resolutions like climbing a mountain, learning Russian, starring in a stage version of West Side Story are, quite frankly, beyond me. I don’t have the energy or, as two hours on my daughter’s Wii singing game demonstrated, the vocal range anymore.

I admire people who aim big - “This year I intend to paint Brazil!” – but small adjustments and a vague desire to slow down time is as “big” as my resolutions get these days. And, to be honest, I make those sort of “resolutions” most weeks. But sometimes, because my nurse training taught me to ask myself uncomfortable questions from time to time, I do wonder if drawing my attention away from the big challenges to the small things is a form of retreat. A retreat born of disengagement, disinterest, disempowerment or, worse, some sort of emotional fatigue? Which I suppose could be down to my age? Or too much chocolate? Or the corrosive effect of having my world shaped by politicians and bureaucrats and deciding on some level that I don’t want to be influenced by people like that? And so I retreat.

I muse on this because I wonder if this type of conflict is something many of us who work in the public services are going to have to grapple with this coming year? Somehow trying to hold onto a semblance of control over the work we do and how we exercise the values we hold dear (values that brought us into public service in the first place) while having to resist, integrate, manage, or tolerate the enforced “bigger picture” or, to put it another way,  the “politics” or “economics”?

I asked a few friends who all work in public services if they had any work-related aims over the next year and mostly they said their aim was “to survive”. Later I asked some students the same thing and,  in comments sprinkled with things like “pass my assessments”, they said pretty much the same thing. You don’t need me to tell you that many nurses feel under prolonged assault – but not needing to say it is not a good reason to ignore it.

So I was wondering if there is a little power we might share in the small things. Maybe in the words we use? For example I have become mildly obsessed with correcting everyone who refers to the “public sector”. It is an insidious term that exists to extract the social and moral force from performing public service. It turns what we do into an economic drain rather than a response to social need and something that is a higher expression of our ability to be civilised.

I also have become a curmudgeonly bore when people start talking about economics. Particularly when they talk about the making of money. Because, naively perhaps, I retain the old-fashioned idea that economics has something to do with value and that people in the public service manufacture things of great value.

It is the language of politics that we need, in our small way, to challenge. Because it is the assumptions and prejudice inherent in the language that carry the power. I suppose there are more ways to oppose wrongdoing and bad politics than just by manning the barricades, right? And correcting the crass assumptions and conceptual framework of people who do not understand the value of public service may be one of them.

And with that thought it’s time I wished you all a belated Happy New Year.

Mark Radcliffe is a senior lecturer and author of Gabriel’s Angel.

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