Be Kind to Bureaucrats


These days, the two nastiest things you can call somebody are not “thief” and “murderer”, but “politician” and “bureaucrat.”  “Bureaucracy” has become a synonym for delay, obfuscation, and obsession with procedural detail at the expense of substantial justice.  Virtually anyone who works for a governmental agency–except perhaps a police officer or a firefighter–is vulnerable to charges of being a bureaucrat.  A few astute observers have even noticed that private business and industry have bureacracies, some of them more intricate than anything ever invented by a government in the U.S. 


Most of us do not even realize where the idea of bureaucracy came from, what it was meant to accomplish, and, perhaps most important, what the alternatives to it may be.  It all started with the government of the German state of Prussia in the eighteenth century, which originated the idea of government agencies whose purpose was  to get the governmental job done, whatever it might be–rather than to make a particular person richer and more powerful. The Prussians developed the idea of setting standards for the governmental job, so that anyone (inside or outside the agency) could tell when it had been done properly.  They originated the revolutionary idea that such an agency was supposed to do the job the same way for anyone who requested it and was entitled to it, regardless of whether the individual government worker liked the requester, and regardless of whom the requester had voted for or otherwise supported.  The Prussians first invented the notion that a governmental agency must not only do its job, but be able to prove that they had done so—also known as documentation, accountability, or red tape.  And they invented the idea of civil service–hiring people based on objective testing for merit and aptitude, and guaranteeing them continued employment so long as they served honestly and competently, regardless of which politicians might be running the government. 


Most people who complain about “waste, fraud, and abuse” at the hands of “bureaucrats” are actually calling our attention to governmental employees who have failed at being bureaucrats,  They have given worse service to some patrons than to others, or failed to give any patron the service required by the applicable regulations, or lost track of a case because of poor documentation. 


Other complaints about “bureaucracy” come from a dislike of the ideas behind it.  Some people, for instance, think no employee can be trusted to give competent and honest service except under the constant threat of arbitrary firing.  Job security of any kind, they think, is bad for the employer, even when the employer is the taxpayer.  Others favor patronage because they believe that government workers should respond immediately to any change in political administration–or resign in favor of the new administration’s flunkies–even if this makes long-range planning of governmental programs impossible. 


And some of those who complain about bureaucracy are complaining because they believe they personally should be getting better service from a governmental agency than its ordinary patrons.  Most of us, at heart, really want two systems of governmental service–one for ourselves and our friends, and one for everybody else.  We object to bureaucracy precisely because it treats all of us alike.


But the real alternative to bureaucracy is government by corruption, patronage, cronyism, guesswork, or intimidation; government which owes nothing to those who pay for it–not even a receipt for taxes.   Of course bureaucracies can be corrupted, or filled by incompetents.  Generally that happens in societies where corruption or incompetence are endemic everywhere–not just in governmental service–and would show up in any system of governmental service. And generally, the cure for a flawed bureaucracy is not the abolition of bureaucracy, but the creation of a better bureaucracy. 


Jane Grey


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