Disclaimer: Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not represent the views or opinions of my employer.
It is a long way from President John F. Kennedy’s exhortation for young people to consider working in government to President Ronald Reagan saying the nine most dangerous words are, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” In the public’s mind the image of a government career changed from a noble profession to something like a school yard bully’s taunt, “Your mother is a bureaucrat.”
The federal government’s “permanent” bureaucracy is an easy target for derision. Candidates frequently run as Washington, D.C. outsiders who promise to break up special interests, take on the lobbyists, and yes, “drain the swamp.” Nonpartisan civil servants can’t fight back and there are few politicians who can garner votes by being an advocate for government workers. There are always exceptions to the rule when an instance of bureaucratic malfeasance or ineptitude tars and feathers all civil servants. Bureaucrats are people too and some make mistakes and blunders just like professional athletes, businesspeople, medical doctors, and clergy.
Things were much worse in the days when federal government positions were stocked with political cronies, party hacks, and the patronage beneficiaries. That was before the assassination of President James Garfield in 1881 by a disgruntled office seeker, a gunman who wanted to be a bureaucrat but was denied. Taking Garfield’s place was Vice President Chester A. Arthur, himself a man who had benefited by political connections. But something changed in President Arthur. His place in history was earned by the creation of a professional civil service that was non-partisan, relied on testing for appointment, and shielded government workers from removal as political vendetta.
A person can be politically conservative or a liberal with respect to “small” or “expanded” government. Those perspectives contrast the size of government, but not the legitimacy of the civil service. The public needs people in government who are experts in agriculture, commerce, energy, law, national security, and veteran’s affairs. Not only must these people be subject matter experts, they also need to know how the levers of government work.
The idea of a permanent bureaucracy, as counterintuitive as it may seem, is not a bad thing. Elected governments come and go every four or eight years according to the cycle of presidential elections. Flush with an electoral college victory, the new president must assemble a team of appointed administration members. It is the government workers who provide stability and continuity. Ideally, civil servants are committed solely to the execution of the elected and appointed leaders’ agendas. Citizens regularly vote and while the leadership may change, the civil service stays in place ready to pursue the actions and policies of the new regimes.
What should not be overlooked is the role that government jobs had in transforming the social fabric of the United States of America. A milestone was President Harry S. Truman’s 1948 executive order that desegregated the U.S. armed forces. That action stood as a precursor to “separate but unequal” desegregation of schools (public school teachers and administrators are government workers) with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision; the first congressional legislation since reconstruction that supported desegregation, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 under President Dwight D. Eisenhower; and the better known Civil Rights Act of 1964 under President Lyndon B. Johnson.
The opportunity to help defend the nation, get an education, exercise a citizen’s right to vote, be treated with equality and respect, live in a home wherever you want (and can afford), and work in the civil service should you choose and be qualified, are all positive values.
We still know there is a long way to go in achievement of full equality for people regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. We should not be satisfied until that day arrives. But we are closer to that goal. Without bureaucrats that ensure the laws are executed, we likely would not have come this far.
Turn on cable television news, check your social media, or talk with a neighbor, and you may hear the equivalent of, “Your mother is a bureaucrat.” Do not be afraid to think or reply, “Thanks. Where would we be without her?”
Read other posts in Government Relations, Public Service | Posted on December 14, 2017.
About David Hennesey, PhD, Associate Dean
Expertise: Criminal Justice Government Relations Public Service
David Hennessy, PhD is Associate Dean of the School of Public Service (SPS) at Excelsior College. SPS offers flexible, online graduate and undergraduate degrees in criminal justice, government, nonprofit management, public administration, and military leadership.
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