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What’s a Bureaucrat To Do?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Stephen G. Harding
December 6, 2016

It’s no surprise that the governed seem none too happy with their government. Of course, this attitude is not new given an American brand of democratic angst has historically been woven into our collective DNA. Yet this contemporary rancor runs uncomfortably high. The corners of society are making it abundantly clear of their fragmented, yet almost universal, unhappiness with something more than national politics.

Populism notwithstanding, it can be argued that another causation of the national dissatisfaction points to the country’s discord with governmental bureaucracy itself. There exists a perception that an untouchable, uncaring, unresponsive, power centered system of government is partially culpable for this very visible anger. Not that the nonelected face of government has not been called out before, it is still disconcerting when elected officials, such as the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan state:

“We’re restoring accountability to the federal government. When we say ‘drain the swamp’ that means stop giving all this power to unelected people to micromanage our society, our economy and our lives.”

It would be naïve for state and local officials to think this attitude ends at the federal level. With a focus on data driven managerial efficiencies and performance-based measurement, governmental agencies are still pressed to meet the oftentimes conflicting expectations of elected officials, let alone the competing interests of a socio-economic diverse and stratified society. This suggests that bureaucracy’s focus on perfecting the rules and methodologies of governance does not address or satisfy the democratic needs of the people.

Images of Concern?

Maybe a line from the film “Gladiator” will help the analysis. In his role as Senator Gaius Tiberius Gracchus, Derek Jacobi states:

“I don’t pretend to be a man of the people. But I do try to be a man for the people.”

This quote, even with its seemingly good intentions, implies a sense of superiority and an acknowledged separation between government and the governed. There are numerous thoughts and inferences that can be made from this statement. Here are just a few:

(A)        With some clear exceptions, rule-driven governmental bureaucracies tend to display a somewhat superficial interest in the individual and common needs and motivations of their constituents.

(B)        Outside the confines of its own organizational interests, government has a tendency to lack an intrinsic understanding of: (1) the public’s need to maximize individualism and self-governance; (2) the need to minimize external control; (3) the importance of society’s egalitarian notion of fairness that transcends programmatic efficiency, fiscal responsibility, and even adherence to the law; and (3) society’s need to itself induce public discourse.

(C)        With the government/governed divide comes the notion of elitism. In his 1979 text, “The Culture of Narcissism-American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations,” Christopher Lasch declared the managerial and professional elite as a paternalistic ruling class. This is partially evidenced when community dialog is replaced by government’s tendency to conduct, usually unintentionally, patronizing monologs. In some ways, this alludes to the blind side of meritocracy. Unlike the authority granted to elected officials, career bureaucrats, regardless of position, educational attainment, managerial proficiency or financial acumen, do not enjoy the legitimacy of a popular mandate validated by the voting process.

What to Do—Earning the Equivalent of a Popular Mandate

Bureaucracy needs to take responsibility in reducing the level of societal consternation. This starts by balancing the needs of the community with the needs of the organization, and with the personal needs and career aspirations of individual professionals. Well-intentioned and technically competent bureaucrats need to publicly demonstrate dedication to public service and not just to their corporate structures or the mandates of their professional associations. Many certainly do, yet organizational demands and a narrow focus in the pursuit of technical and managerial skills may not be enough. A broader focus requires an expanded definition of what constitutes merit. Patricia Ingraham may have said it best in her text, Foundation of Merit: Public Service in American Democracy:

“Merit is having not only the necessary skills and competencies to fill the job in question but also a public service character—a desire to act, not for individual self-interest but for a broader good. Merit is related to values, ideals and ethics, to the appropriate role of the civil service in democracy, and thus to governance in a democratic society.”

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James L. Perry underscores this concept in his essay, Federalist No. 72: What Happened to the Public Service Ideal?  As a portion of his suggested appendix to Alexander Hamilton’s paper, he states:

“Attending to the competence of civil servants without attending to their relatedness to the executive and the citizenry is a formula for incomplete and inadequate behavior, behavior that citizens will come to view as bad behavior. Civil servants must be selected and nurtured not only for their competence but for their public service. Developing public service as the core value is the bulwark of a system of administration that will motivate civil servants to do the right thing.”

Subscription to these ideals just might prove to be an effective way in garnering the equivalency of a popular mandate.

Author: Stephen G.  Harding is an adjunct professor in the master of public policy and administration program at Northwestern University.  Previously he served in various senior management capacities in the California cities of San Diego, Pasadena and Santa Ana.  His private sector experience includes vice presidencies in the real estate development and municipal consulting industries. Email: [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

One Response to What’s a Bureaucrat To Do?

  1. Tim Hults Reply

    December 6, 2016 at 5:55 pm

    Steve,

    Greatly appreciate the article. I do find lacking that sense of public service in our profession. I am constantly reinforcing that mantra to the staff and reminding them of their roles in the organization. For without the public to serve, many would not be employed in this field.

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