By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Not needed: More bureaucrat-bashing

Max Stier, the dynamic head of the Partnership for Public Service, one of my favorite groups in Washington, wrote a great op-ed in The Washington Post over the weekend taking President Obama to task for language he has used in defending his health care plan. Obama has said, "I don't want government bureaucrats meddling in your health care," in his response to critics alleging his plan amounts to a government takeover of the health care system.
 
As Stier points out, there are legitimate differences of opinion on issues such as whether health care reform should include a public option, but to echo the rhetoric about "bureaucrats" just feeds a bunch of popular prejudices that are unfair to public servants and, even more importantly, undermine popular confidence in our democratic institutions.

I ban the term "bureaucrat" in my classroom at the Kennedy School, because we are an institution with a public service mission. I often use "public servant," but students are welcome to use a neutral phrase such as "civil servant."  (We do sometimes talk about bureaucracy as a way of organizing government agencies, discussing its plusses and minuses. But if I say,"We have too much bureaucracy in government," I am not saying that government equals bureaucracy.)

I get mad at academic political scientists who use the phrase "bureaucrat" to describe civil servants, insouciantly claiming that it is a neutral or scientific term. We also shun the word in the academic journal I edit, the International Public Manaagement Journal.
 
In his op-ed, Stier says to the president: "Surely you are aware that when it comes to medical care and government, customer surveys regularly show veterans are more satisfied with the health services they receive from public servants at the Department of Veterans Affairs than the average American enrolled in a private plan. Public servants also manage the Social Security Administration, making sure that the nation's elderly receive their benefits, with just 0.6 percent administrative costs for the primary retirement program. That makes them more efficient than most private-sector companies, something the general public probably does not know. And, as you know, Medicare is run by 'bureaucrats' at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Annual surveys by the department consistently show that Medicare beneficiaries rate their health plans higher than those covered by private insurers."
 
Government service will not become cool -- to use the hope President Obama has expressed -- as long as people perpetrate unfair, stigmatizing language about people serving in the government.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Sep 15, 2009 at 12:08 PM


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