PRB Articles


Does Anybody Like Being A Bureaucrat?

Editor’s Note : This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.

I’ve really come to hate the term, “bureaucrat.”

There may have been a time when the word had a positive connotation, but these days it carries a stigma synonymous with a mindless pencil-pusher who makes no rational decisions when an irrational one will do, and whose whole being is guided by “the book.”

This irritating word comes from the French word, bureau, which means “desk”; so generally it is associated with a desk job. As we know, a job in parks and recreation usually takes practitioners away from the desk since the “job” and the customer are out in the community.

Even one of my favorite information hubs, Wikipedia, says, “The term ‘bureaucrat’ today has largely accepted negative connotations, so those who are the members of a governmental bureaucracy usually prefer terms such as ‘civil servant’ or ‘public servant’ to describe their jobs. The negative connotation is fueled by the perception that bureaucrats lack creativity and autonomy.”

If that’s the view of the public, it needs to change. I would prefer to be part of what Janet and Robert Denhardt describe as “the new public service,” in their book by that name. They hold that “Public servants do not deliver customer service; they deliver democracy.”

Their approach advances the dignity and worth of public service, and reasserts the values of democracy, citizenship and the public interest as the preeminent values of public administration.

Common-Sense Decisions

For me, there is nothing better than to work for the government of the city or county in which you live. The impact we have on local government directly impacts the quality of life we build for our family and community.

I am constantly aware that decisions I and fellow public administrators make daily can and do have a “cause and effect result” for fellow citizens. For that reason, I tend to be more deliberate in approaching decisions. I often choose to delay a decision--if a crisis does not exist--in order to obtain public, and sometimes political, input. Generally, this not only leads to a more balanced decision, but also has broader appeal and support because people who are affected are involved in the decision.

It bugs me to no end when bureaucratic bodies (boards, commissions, councils) choose to act autonomously, and make decisions that are doomed to create conflict.In a real-life example, a local school board made a last-minute decision before the school year started to change the bus routes in order to save gas. Previous routes put buses close to children’s homes, minimizing the distance the children had to walk in the dark. The new routes established bus stops that had some elementary-age children walking up to a half-mile in the dark on busy city streets with no sidewalks during morning rush hour.

Now, I realize that hindsight is 20-20, but it doesn’t take a genius to calculate the concerns this caused parents. Even a cursory consideration of this policy should lead most rational people to realize that it is going to generate much negative response, which it did. Predictably, parents stormed the school board, newspapers ran editorials from angry parents, and the school administration became the object of derision.

Cause And Effect

· Cause: The decision was made with little forethought and no input from the public it would impact.

· Effect: Upset parents chose to drive their children to school rather than risk them getting hit by a car in the dark, abducted by a stranger or other unnamed horrors.

Any gas saved by buses was more than made up for with additional cars on the road. The school board had to revert to the old routes. Then, after the damage was already done, the board decided to form a citizen committee to determine how--or even if--bus routes should be changed.

Incidents such as these give public administrators a bad name. Public servants, entrusted with the safety and welfare of children, made a unilateral decision, imperiously thinking they knew better than parents what was good for their kids. The result was that trust in government was lost, and once lost, it is difficult to get back.

Justify The Means

Unfortunately, we see this happen all too often. Parks and recreation public servants can become jaded just as those in other fields. Serving the public is often frustrating and stressful. We have limited public resources that are to be shared with many different groups and individuals. As we all know, we will not please everyone. Regardless of what decision we make, someone will be dissatisfied, someone will feel displaced, and someone will be upset with us.

What to do? I’m not sure I have the definitive answer because every situation has its unique set of circumstances. But I do know this from experience: Many times a crisis is created because public administrators engage in crisis decision-making when there isn’t a crisis. When time and circumstances permit, get everyone involved in a situation around the table to talk before a decision is made.

A lesson from the Denhardts’ The New Public Service also may serve well. Maintain a “public spirit” as you approach decisions, and constantly pay attention to the principles of justice, public participation and deliberation.

Justice is simply an application of the golden rule: How would you want to be treated? You would want your voice heard, your concerns considered. So establish an environment where people on opposite sides of an issue can have their say, and maybe understand the other side better. This leads to more public participation. Then, in this atmosphere, deliberation can clarify and sometimes reorient perceived differences. At the very least, you can minimize the number of people who are totally against the final decision. When a decision is arrived at in this way, I feel more like a public administrator and less like a bureaucrat.

This is pretty heady stuff, but it’s at the heart of what we do as public servants. What are your thoughts on this? Have you experienced such “bureaucratic” behavior? Do you have any ideas how to counter it? Share your experience. Send a message to me or PRB.

Randy Gaddo , a retired Marine, is Director of Leisure Services (parks, recreation, library) in Peachtree City, Ga. Contact him at (770) 631-2542 or e-mail dls@peachtree-city.org

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