Bureaucrat, n, a member of the bureaucracy, which is a body of unelected government officials or an administrative policy-making group. (From Merriam Webster Online.)
The Washington Post‘s Federal Eye by Ed O’Keefe published a recent review of President Obama’s use of the word when related to healthcare reform. The gist of the article makes the point that Obama has started using this word to epitomize red-tape and excessive – and confusing – regulation administered by the executive branch he heads. O’Keefe quotes Max Stier of Partnership for Public Service:
…the most common voter reaction to federal government workers is summarized in the word “bureaucrats.” The term “federal government workers” receives a favorable response from 71 percent of those surveyed, but the term “federal government bureaucrats” receives only 20 percent — a drop of 51 percent with one word.
From my La Follette perspective, I am unsure of where I stand. On the one hand, I am excited about Obama’s call for a ‘cool government’ that draws excellence. This evidence from Stier shows that this healthcare debate tactic by the current administration damages the goal of ‘cool government.’ Bureaucrat is a word – apparently – with connotations that fails to attract young people to serving the public good. That is bad.
On the other hand, however, I love the opportunity to study bureaucracy and potentially fill such a role someday in the future. One of my proudest moments this past year was learning to spell bureaucracy without using spell check. More seriously, it is the concept of public service and improving government that keeps many talented employees in the public sector. While there are duds in government (as everywhere), the vast majority are working for the greatest good for their local, state, or federal (or tribal) citizens. The commitment to service is something exciting – regardless of the lexicon used.
Obama has hurt his ability to inspire and lead the civil servants under him with the implications of ‘bureaucrats in healthcare.’ I hope he can avoid using the term in the future as a derogative, because it can be a positive. Bureaucrats are those non-elected officials that can deliver services to all, regardless of political affiliations or constituency groups. It is an important role, and I hope another elected official (Obama) does not begin bureaucrat-bashing to gain political points.
If I had my way, I would take back the word Bureaucrat. Red tape is bad, public service is good. Bureaucrats are the ones who would implement removing the former by providing the latter. That’s why there are great Public Affairs schools like La Follette training future government employees.