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What Ever Happened To 'Cool'?

By Max Stier
Saturday, September 12, 2009

There you go again, Mr. President.

After promising to restore faith in our government and make it "cool" and "competent," you slighted our public servants by derisively referring to them as "bureaucrats" in an effort to appease those who worry about a government takeover of health care.

On Wednesday, you told Congress and the American people, "I will make sure that no government bureaucrat or insurance company bureaucrat gets between you and the care that you need."

At a town hall meeting in Grand Junction, Colo., on Aug. 15, you said, "I don't want government bureaucrats meddling in your health care."

It seems that you are willing to use -- at least for the sake of health-care reform -- the misguided language that government workers are incompetent and can't be trusted. It's a flawed strategy that only perpetuates the lack of trust in our government and reinforces negative stereotypes.

One can legitimately agree or disagree with the proposal to have a publicly run health-insurance option as part of comprehensive health-care reform, but there is no need to denigrate the quality or ability of our federal workers during this debate.

The truth, as you know, is that government "bureaucrats" are getting it right every day. They are on the front lines working to address the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, working on issues related to two foreign wars, working to ensure that we remain competitive in an increasingly global market, and working to keep us safe day in and day out.

They deserve better from their president. As the nation's leading public servant, you are their boss, and they take their cues from you.

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.

Using the negatively charged term "bureaucrat" is akin to describing a doctor as a "quack" or an attorney as an "ambulance chaser." The word "bureaucrat" elicits negative feelings from the public. A 2004 poll conducted by Partnership for Public Service found that the term "federal government workers" received a favorable response from 71 percent of those surveyed, but the term "federal government bureaucrats" received 20 percent.

To be clear, I'm not saying our government can't do better. It can, and it should. But fixing government is a task that belongs to all Americans, starting with you.

During last year's presidential campaign, you promised to transform Washington and "make government cool again." In your inaugural address, you said, "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works."

You had it right on those occasions, and you have been working diligently to achieve those goals. In the midst of the battle to reform our health-care system, you should avoid demoralizing those who are serving their country by portraying them as nameless, faceless "bureaucrats."

The writer is president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service.

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