By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

A public service moment?

With the impeachment hearings underway, I have heard the words public service and public servant used more in the last few days than typically over a 10-year period. The opening statement of career foreign service officer George Kent declared that "I represent the third generation of my family to have chosen a career in public service." Ousted Ukrainian Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, in her opening statement, said she had "devoted the majority of my life -- 33 years -- to service to the country."

I don’t see it as a partisan statement to note that I felt deeply moved by such references; I have equal admiration for the public service of John McCain and others. I think our government accomplishes many good things for our people -- in a book I wrote a long time ago, I called it "the only government we’­­­­­­ve got" -- and I believe those working for government are dramatically underappreciated. To me, this public recognition has been wonderful to hear.

I recognize, though, that there also exists an entirely different, much more critical, narrative about these people. It’s actually not the same as the clichéd criticisms of "bureaucrats" for being lazy wasters of taxpayer dollars or overbearing­­­­­­ attackers on our liberties -- or sometimes both! Instead, President Donald Trump’s criticism is that these career public servants represent a "deep state." Here the president's gift for compelling phrases seems to have left him, since the term "deep state" is mystifying or meaningless to the vast majority of Americans. The phrase actually comes from Turkish (!) politics, where it was invented to refer to those – generally senior military officers – who held no formal position but stayed on across different governments and directed politics from behind the scenes. It was popularized in U.S. politics by Steve Bannon and Breitbart News, from where it migrated to the president.

As weird as President Trump’s choice of language is, the underlying concept is not crazy and deserves to be taken seriously. In less flamboyant words, it refers to what is often called "the permanent government" that stays on across administrations.

What is an appropriate role for such people in our system?

The most flattering view of them is presented in the attitudes of impeachment supporters. If an elected official does something that violates the Constitution, the laws, or widespread norms, it is the duty of the career official to raise a voice, however difficult this might be personally. In doing so, they are expressing our view that nobody is above the law.

The least flattering view is that career civil servants can ride roughshod over political appointees, based on a personal disagreement with the appointee’s views. We have all heard of "slow rolling" and "outlasting," reflecting the careerist adage "I be" ("I be here when you be gone"). If such attitudes are driven by the civil servant’s personal views, this is contemptuous of democracy.

But there are a many cases in the middle. The civil servant’s views may represent a well-thought-out, if controversial, set of values. The political appointee may not be respecting the agency’s statutory mandate, which -- unless the law is changed -- applies independently of the president’s views.

In these cases, my view is that it is acceptable -- and a good part of our system -- for the civil servant to participate in the internal debate over which policy should be followed with their own point of view. The civil servant need not simply decline to participate and hand the decision over to the political official. But the political official is entitled to make the ultimate decision.

In these situations, a common view is that the career person should accept the decision without complaint, and resign if they can’t live with it. I’m not sure I agree – I think we ought to allow more room for career folks to dissent without resigning.

Yes, I think this is a public service moment. But I want to mean that in the broader sense that there are many roles that such public servants may rightly play in our system of government.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Nov 18, 2019 at 6:30 AM


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