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Can bureaucrats be interesting when the world demands that they be boring?

Friday, April 19, 2013
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney


In a previous blog on his former site (See: The World Needs Us to Stop Being Boring), newly minted co-author Kent Aitken, expressed his lament at the fact that the public service is rich with unrealized creativity, extolling that the world needs us (public servants) to stop being boring.

While I whole heartily agree with Kent's plea, I do with the following caveat (which I left verbatim as a comment to the original post):
What the world needs and what the world wants are two different things. In the arena of public perception bureaucrats always lose, stereotypes prevail and reputations are generally sullied until proven otherwise. 
Intellectually, I get it. The accumulated history of bureaucracy writ large is rife with boondoggles and bafflegab.
Experientially, I’ve seen – and, as one could imagine, have been on the receiving end – of some pretty ridiculous things. Professionally though, its often hard to stay passionate about a vocation that is consistently dragged through the mud.

I suppose what I am saying is that the world may need us not to be boring but it certainly doesn’t want us to be interesting.

This tension, between what the public 'likely needs' and what it 'demonstrably wants' is, in my view, akin to the similar tension I see playing out between the time honored archetype of the 'faceless bureaucrat' and renewed calls to celebrate the public service. While I am reserving further comment on this issue for now, I whole heartily encourage you to read both of the articles linked to in the paragraph above.

Both are written by former Clerks of the Privy Council (Mel Cappe and Alex Himelfarb respectively) and come on the heels of a recent Public Policy Forum testimonial dinner. You may also wish to read  this Toronto Star Editorial which makes a case for protecting the public service.

Below you will find some questions I'd like to discuss as well as excerpts from both articles to wet your appetite; if you have any thoughts, I'd encourage you to share them in the comments below.

Questions I'm pondering
  • Can bureaucrats be interesting when the world demands that they be boring? 
  • Can they remain faceless while being celebrated? 

Excerpts from Cappe's 'faceless bureaucrats'

"We take for granted that each day, because of the work of dedicated and committed Public Servants: Thousands of planes take off and land safely; hundreds of thousands of people come through the border securely; thousands of prisoners stay incarcerated and in remediation; our food is assured safe; thousands of communities are well policed; OAS, EI and CPP cheques are delivered to the right people at the right time in the millions; path-breaking research is undertaken in government laboratories; and nobody notices."
"We need ministers to be the demanders of good analysis and evidence in the policy process. If ministers don’t ask, then public servants will get out of the habit of serving the public interest. I fear that we, they and the public are taking for granted the public service and analysis and evidence that should inform the policy process."

Excerpts from Himelfarb's Celebrating the public service

"Such celebrations [the Public Policy Forum Dinner] are pretty rare these days though the public service is an institution that deserves celebrating, and may need it now more than ever.
My hunch is that I can speak for all the former clerks here this evening that for us public service was deeply satisfying, a privilege, a source of pride, an opportunity to make a difference. Public service was more often than not fulfilling, and, believe it or not, even fun.
I wonder what proportion of public servants would say this today. Things were much easier for us. Public service was more valued. Public servants were treated with respect. Politicians sometimes got angry at our advice but they kept asking. The media often ignored us – we liked that – but they sometimes reminded Canadians that we existed and that we mattered. When I left academics to join the federal public service, I didn’t have to explain my decision. My friends and colleagues didn’t think it was strange. They thought joining the public service was worthy, maybe important, at the very least, respectable. 
Things do seem different today. The public service is no less important but it sure seems more than ever under attack and from every side. Less valued. Less trusted. More under the gun. It must be less fun."