Monday, June 4, 2012

MBR: Unconscious Civilization

I decided I was going to read a book a week for a year, here's a quick review of this week's book.  You can see the ongoing list here.

Basic Info

The Unconscious Civilization by John Ralston Saul

Why I read it

I picked it up at a community book sale a few years ago -  having already read On Equilibrium - but for some reason I never got around to reading it.

If you aren't familiar with the Massey Lecture Series I suggest having a look, there are a number of great lectures / books available (e.g.  Ronald Wright's A Short History of Progress).

How it connects to the Public Sector

Despite the fact that the book was originally published in 1995, the context within which is was written was very similar to the context within which we currently find ourselves. Among other things, the book addresses issues such as what it means to be a citizen, how bureaucracies use dissociative language to create distance, and the detrimental effects of the rise of the managerial class.

Here's a great excerpt about the tendency for bureaucrats to cast citizens as consumers of government services (rather than citizens):
Yet in imitation of the marketplace, govemment is busily transforming itself to meet business standards. It isn't quite clear what these are when it comes to public service. The flaw in the logic can be seen in very simple things: for example, there is a tendency now to refer to the citizen as a customer of the govemment. The customer of the police. The customer of the fireman or the health officer. But we are not customers. We haven't walked into a shop to think about buying. We are not going to make a purchase and then walk away. We are not even customers with long-term (in business this is rarely very long) service contracts. We are the owners of the services in question. Our relationship is not tied to purchase or to value for money, but to responsibility Not only are we not the customers of public servants, we are in fact their employers. I suppose that if this mania for business terms is uncontrollable, then the most accurate term to describe the citizen would be shareholder. But even that is inexact because (1) we cannot buy and sell our shares (we are stuck with them for life) and (2) we do not own these shares for profit.
This little linguistic slippage within the bureaucracy shows how essentially directionless the corporatist system is. Once the idea of management for management's sake takes over, the organization, whatever it is, begins to skitter about aimlessly, following one expert system after another, obsessed by problem solving without really considering the problem in its own terms. And control. Everything is a matter of control. Yet control, like efficiency, is a secondary or tertiary business, well behind policy and purpose and, for that matter, effectiveness (p 100).

What I got out of reading it

We need to bridge the language divide between government and citizens. One need only walk into a conversation in Ottawa amongst public sector employees to see that bureaucrats have a language all to their own. It's a language that makes videos like these clever, amusing, eye-opening and tragic all at the same time.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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