Saturday, September 12, 2009

"That's Not My Job"

In a rather contrived expression of umbrage, the chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, Max Stier, complains that the President referred to government bureaucrats in his recent speech, apparently because he was supposed to call them "cool"? (Goverment 'cools'?) Never mind that Obama's use of the term was correct.
On Wednesday, you told Congress and the American people, "I will make sure that no government bureaucrat or insurance company bureaucrat gets between you and the care that you need."
Stier apparently believes that as bureaucrats have given that term a bad name, they should now be called something else.

First, it's silly to pretend that the President's comment was intended to insult government workers. His intent was obvious: He was responding to a consistent attack from the right on his healthcare reforms, that "government bureaucrats" would dictate people's choice of doctor, ration their care, and form death panels that would... do whatever the nut job Palin types imagined that "death panels" would do. A while back, opponents of healthcare reform put together a video that supposedly illustrated how a government healthcare system would work (never mind that single payer systems require a minimum of paperwork for patients), imagining the requirement of processing a blizzard of forms through a bureaucratic maze. Obama was correct to point out that such a system should be unacceptable if coming from either the public or private sector.

It's interesting that Stier has no words of criticism for the decades the political right has spent pounding "government bureaucrats", or even their framing the context in which Obama had to respond to the popular conception of "government bureaucrats" getting in the way of healthcare. It's almost as if he thinks that the perception arose in a vacuum, and all Obama has to do is say that government is "'cool' and 'competent'" and everybody will believe that it is so.

I wonder, has Mr. Stier ever encountered the following phrase,
... and other duties as assigned by your supervisor.
Why, Mr. Stier, do bureaucracies (the places where people who no longer wish to be called 'bureaucrats' work) find it necessary to include that type of language in pretty much every employee job description? People who read this blog know that I'm not one to join in mindless bashing of unions and bureaucracies, but there's a core truth to the notion of the incompetent bureaucrat with a supervisor who's either resigned to the fact that it's too difficult to fire an underperforming employee or who simply can't be bothered to step in to correct or admonish bad work. I doubt that there's a person in the country who hasn't encountered a power-tripping bureaucrat, an unhelpful bureaucrat, or one who forces you to guess what hoops you must jump through and seems to take pleasure when you get things wrong. Heck, there are individual bureaucrats who will give you all of that and more in a single visit to their desk or counter.

Sure, there are many government workers who have good work ethic, will go the extra mile, and try to give you good customer service. (Often for exactly the same rate of pay as the officious work-avoider at the next desk.) No, it's not fair to tar them with the same brush. But if you go through the wringer with a bad bureaucrat or, let's be honest, if you're an upper level bureaucrat supervising one of them, which sticks out in your mind?

The problems of bureaucracy won't be fixed by fashioning a new name for the people who work within them. You start insisting that people refer to the lazy, incompetent, rude person at a government agency as a "federal government worker", great, but unless something changes in their behavior it won't take many years before that term polls as badly as "federal government bureaucrat." Stier is correct that the question, as asked by Obama, "is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works." Rather than fretting about being called a bureaucrat, Stier's energies would be better spent trying to find ways to make government work better. If he does that job well enough, I suspect he'll find that the term "federal government bureaucrat" is perceived much more favorably.

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