I read an article recently that was mainly an exercise in badmouthing government employees as “bureaucrats” (I’m not going to link to it and give the writer any more traffic). Bureaucrat is one of those words that can have multiple meanings, depending on who uses the word, the context where it is used, and even the tone of voice used when saying it. Bureaucrats make government run, but they can also gum up the works. With that in mind, if you work in government, are you a good bureaucrat, or a bad bureaucrat? If you do not work in government, do you use the term bureaucrat as a term of derision? Or do you accept that there are both good and bad bureaucrats?
Let’s start with the definition of “bureaucrat.” A bureaucrat is an official of a bureaucracy. So – what is a bureaucracy? Dictionary.com defines it as:
- Government by many bureaus, administrators, and petty officials.
- The body of officials and administrators, especially of a government or government department.
- Excessive multiplication of, and concentration of power in, administrative bureaus or administrators.
- Administration characterized by excessive red tape and routine.
Only one of those definitions (#2) could be characterized as good or neutral. The others are negative. Petty officials? Excessive multiplication and concentration of power? Excessive red tape and routine? The sad fact is that many people view federal, state and local employees through a similar lens. Rather than looking at the good characteristics of government workers, they look at the red tape, or the unresponsiveness of some government workers, and think that bureaucrat is the longest four-letter word in their vocabulary.
Like the witches in the Wizard of Oz, there are good bureaucrats and bad bureaucrats. The people who beat other folks over the head with rules are bad bureaucrats. The ones who go out of their way to help people understand government services are good bureaucrats. Those who lack any sense of urgency about their work are bad bureaucrats. Those who find ways to save money for the taxpayers are good bureaucrats, while those who can waste millions of dollars as though it is Monopoly money are bad bureaucrats.
In the 33 years I was in government, most of the people I encountered were good bureaucrats. They cared about the work they did. They respected the taxpayers and spent their money wisely. They put in (at least) 8 hours of work for 8 hours of pay, and they viewed their work as public service. They were proud of the work they did, and they were good at it.
The number of people who deserve to be called bad bureaucrats is not that large. Yes, there are folks in government who love red tape, and who think you should not put off until tomorrow what you can put off until next week. Or next month. There are people who are delighted to use whatever power they may have to make themselves feel special. Those are the folks who give government work a bad reputation. That small number of people do a great deal of harm, and they are just as unpopular with their coworkers as they are with the public.
Even though bureaucrat can have a neutral meaning, I think it is time to stop using the term to describe government employees. For the vast majority of those folks, “public servant” is a better term to use. It is more descriptive, and certainly more accurate. We can keep “bureaucrat” for that small number of government employees who do not serve the public. Or maybe we can get people like that out of government and make everyone (except the bureaucrats) a little bit happier.