“A half-sleeved job”: Governmental work ethic in Jordan

Ruba Saqr (Photo: Jordan News)
(Photo: Jordan News)
One of the most striking observations about Jordanian governmental culture is our public servants’ unwavering ability to get comfortable with mediocrity. اضافة اعلان

Any encounter, however small, is bound to leave one with a heavy feeling, probably from dealing with recurring public-sector under-performance that has perfected the art of dragging its feet.

We have an expression in our Jordanian dialect that sums up the attitude of many ministers, mayors, heads of departments, and employees across the governmental hierarchy: “Doing a half-sleeved job.”

With this attitude, thousands of public servants march into their offices early in the morning every day (in a pandemic-free world) to reproduce the same tired and uninspiring culture that we have all gotten accustomed to.

“A half-sleeved job” is almost a mantra that has been dictating everything from big decisions, to how a window clerk handles your paperwork, with the boredom and lack of zeal you’d expect from someone who truly and wholeheartedly hates his or her job.

Though some may argue this propensity to mediocrity is not real corruption, I’d like to humbly offer a counter argument that regards mediocrity as a form of severe and dangerous ethical corruption.

The kind of moral corruption that leads to abuse of power, self-enrichment, and nepotism.

In both Islam and Christianity, we seldom remind people, on a mass scale, that “work is worship.”

No one has ever bothered explain to us this principle at any point in our school or university lives.

The concept of “honest work” requiring full-heartedness, conscience, resolve, attention to detail, and self-observation and reflection, is completely left out from our educational culture.

Because of this lack of moral education, we are cursed with fleets upon fleets of governmental employees who are conscience-dead enough to use their salaries as an excuse for not doing an excellent job for their countrymen and women, for their homeland, and for their God!

In all honesty, nothing can break a conscience that walks the straight and narrow, not even a meagre income.

This Machiavellianism has somehow made it to the mass consciousness of the nation, in numerous ways, over the past few years.

Living a morally upright way of life used to be second nature to my late grandmother’s generation, who have endured wars, famine, and unbelievable stories of displacement and oppression.

But for today’s Generation Z, and the Millennials before them, the sense of entitlement, to what they haven’t worked hard for, points to a severe collapse in our ethical and moral education.

Whining about a poor salary, not having the latest smartphone model, and not eating out every single day of the week, have become the very excuses many use to tank their jobs, and allow their conscience to, slowly but surely, die.

To further justify their lack of commitment, those who adopt this defeatist outlook are also good at backing their claim to an easy, conscience-free life by comparing Jordan to its neighboring countries, and their completely collapsed social and economic systems.

This helps them slip into as many comfort zones as possible, as they self-congratulate for not being part of a worst case scenario.

For a full picture of our current reality, let us not forget the other type of “half-sleeved” officials, who are blessed with a better education than most, come from larger families, and make better income, yet produce utterly mediocre results.

Another proof, income does not make the man, or woman.

As it happens, there is a slight difference between the mediocrity of those occupying top official ranks (the civil servants), and those at the bottom of the governmental ladder, aka the public servants.

The ones at the top have their over-inflated egos, cigars, status-related perks like frequent dinner invitations to functions by apple-polishers eager to protect their interests, meetings they do not have to take minutes-of-meeting for, and a workforce of outsourced consultants to do their job for them.

The latter isn’t an imaginary scenario. A consultancy firm I worked for a few years ago was once contracted to create a power point presentation on behalf of a ministry's secretary general, who, in his turn, was asked to complete the task on behalf of his boss, the minister.

My supervisor and I, two private-sector workers, created the slideshow detailing the ministry’s 5-year plan and strategy without a single note or direction from the secretary general.

Our work was later presented in the minister’s name at a cabinet meeting, presided over by a then-sitting prime minister.

I can match the aforementioned example with many other stories I have bore witness to; stories that point to a deep form of government lethargy and an over-dependence on local and foreign consultants to do their job for them.

We are often guilty of assigning blame to the collective, in this case the government.

But the point I am trying to make here is that for a certain trait to become collective, it needs to start on the individual level.

It all starts with people’s daily choices, before those accumulate enough to become a social phenomenon.

It all boils down to one thing: Lack of “work ethic” on a very personal level.

As a direct product of our school and university systems, I can confidently testify to the fundamental role of our educational system in creating generations after generations of demoralized individuals who just want to get by in life.

Who want to get good grades for the sake of the grade. Who believe in the “means that justify the ends” in most of what they do, and who often engage in opportunism, and even cheating, to secure a good grade.

In school, work ethic was never a concept our teachers were too busy trying to instill in our hearts and minds.

In university, the only class that taught me a thing or two about work ethic was an essay-writing course that shed some light on the ethics of writing without plagiarism.

My point is, to break the vicious cycle of governmental lethargy, we need to start focusing on moral values, like work ethic, in our educational institutions.

We need a complete paradigm shift in our learning systems, so as to evolve from mere education to a higher-level of true “mentorship” that instils moral concepts in the hearts and minds of students.

Maybe then we can produce better governments, furnished with better quality public servants, who come to work with the kind of attitude, conscience and loyalty that can save us from our chronic mediocrity.

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