THINK Washington is too remote from the rest of the citizenry? Blame "the bureaucracy." Frustrated by federal regulations? Blame "the bureaucracy." Got a tough election campaign coming up? By all means, blame "the bureaucracy?"
Blaming us bureaucrats for the nation's ills has, of course, long been one of America's favorite pastimes. You have to blame somebody for all those problems, after all, and "bureaucrat" always seems to fit the bill rather nicely. It has that reassuring sound of something mechanical, something distant, a little gear in a faraway piece of machinery that can be tinkered with and all will be well.
Well, we bureaucrats -- who have families and pay bills and taxes like everyone else -- sometimes get weary of all that. It is not only the depressing effect on individuals and organizations that troubles us. We worry because we know that criticizing us civil servants who are trying to do the jobs society hands us is not going to accomplish much. We know that fingering "the bureaucracy" is usually a bum rap and certainly a non-solution.
The people in "the bureaucracy," after all, are little different from those who sell appliances, heal people, run restaurants, work in factories or schools or law offices. We have our share of committed and capable people as well as clock watchers and coffee-break specialists, and we surely are not "isolated" from what is happening in this country. Indeed, we may just be better informed about, and at least as sensitive to, current opinion as are our official and private detractors.
Some of us actually have lived out there in American civilization as it occurs beyond the Potomac, growing up in city neighborhoods and small towns and suburbs, and, believe it or not, we still communicate with families and friends out there. More than that, if we are to carry out the multiple jobs that the Congress orders us to do -- that's those people everybody else picks to speak for them -- we have to stay on top of what is happening out there.
So we spend a lot of time with other Americans. In our regional offices, a lot of dedicated people often give up nights and weekends to go where their "constituencies" are, ironing out problems, helping state and local officials benefit from federal programs, learning about local desires and needs.
As for us "isolated" bureaucrats in Washington, we don't spend all our time cheating on sick leave or writing indecipherable regulations. We keep in close touch with those regional offices, tapping their knowledge and sensitivities and trying to explain the latest monkey wrench from the White House, the Congress, the Office of Management and Budget or the Cabinet secretary. We trek to conventions and meetings of local officials and interest groups. We even spend considerable time with individual citizens, and -- surprise -- they actually seem to want the services or grants or projects that we bring. Yet it is those same citizens who benefit from the services who later write letters to the editor about us freeloading, non-productive members of society.
If voters are feeling exasperated about government these days, consider some of the frustrations we "bureaucrats" have to cope with. There is a Catch 22 to working in the bureaucracy. It's called regulations, and we write them. There have been some unintelligible ones written, and some unnecessary ones, and some downright foolish ones. We are, in a word, human, and are as subject to error as our neighbors who build cars, repair the plumbing or create situation comedies.
An act of Congress creates public goals and policy; it is supposed to show the direction Congress intends our nation to take. It often establishes a new relationship between Washington and some segment or segments of us Americans. Something new, or changed, is expected, and we civil servants have an important task to do if that "something" is to happen.
We must translate the arcane and often vague language of the act into the "Place tab A in slot A" type of directions that will bring lofty goals and policies into the reach of those who will make them function and those who will benefit. And if some of those congressional mandates are less than clear because of the political horse trading that created them, or if they are poorly conceived and carelessly executed because congressmen, too, are human, that may be interesting, but it doesn't serve as an excuse for being "unresponsive" in writing and carrying out those "regs."
So we try, by regulations and other means, to make complex economic and political and social concepts work fairly in a thousand varied communities, in 55 states and territories, each of which has a governor with his own agenda and ideas of what is best. Under the best conditions, it isn't easy to adapt legislation to the myriad details of who is eligible and who is not, where it applies and under what conditions, what fiscal and personnel procedures must be followed, who is responsible for implementing it and who is responsible for making sure it is implemented. We have to be in touch with the interested congressmen, lobby organizations, special interest groups and local officials. We hold hearings and open meetings, trying to explain to citizens what their Congress legislated and to get their ideas on how the new program or control or policy ought to be implemented. Not surprinsingly, the suggestions we receive are usually far from unanimous even within a given community or interest group, not to mention the national body politic.
Whether one calls this part of our work conciliation, compromise, empire building or wishy-washism, the devising of fair, workable, and legally defensible rules and regulations is not a simple task. Nor does it win us many friends. But until Congress devises a better system, it is a necessary task.
That is the formal process for implementing the will of the people. There is another.It has to do with the real or perceived desires of a congressional committee chairman or a member of the appropriations committee, of White House staff or a Cabinet secretary, of influential members of the president's party, of key program reviewers at OMB and others too numerous to mention. That their informal demands sometimes conflict with the formal ones just adds to the excitement of our work.
The president and Congress are quick to adjust to the winds of public desire. The old desire for more and more government services to the citizen is still strong, with the result that we civil servants are given more and more program responsibilities.But there is also a new desire for less government spending, fewer government employees, less government control. So on the one hand we are told to do something new and on the other we are told to do it without new money and without new people, and we are critized for writing the new ment rules and regulations needed to do it.
Most of us bureaucrats are not building empires, and few of us will end up personally wealthy. We get good pay and benefits, but probably nothing special when compared to our opposite numbers in business and the professions.
Many of us see the anti-civil servant clamor as mindless blame-casting, but I don't think that we are bitter. A feeling of frustration, perhaps, and of being let down, but not bitter.
We are Congress' whipping boy, used for political benefit back home, and we are the public's whipping boy, used to vent their general dissatisfaction government and politics. If government spending becomes unpopular, put the blame on those who spend it, but not, God forbid, on those who ordered it spent. If there are too many government controls over one's life, it would seem far more productive to have some words with those who pass the laws rather than attack those who implement them.
And finally there is a president who ran against us all -- civil servants and Congress -- and is still doing so. He told the world on July 15 that the rest of us in government were on an island, remote from the reality of America, but not he. If I read my colleagues' reaction correctly, it was not one of pique but rather of "What's the use?" Far from understanding the role of civil service really plays, President Carter, like much of the Congress, many other politicians and too many private citizens, takes the easy way out by casting all the blame on a scapegoat.
If it's not a good time to be working in Washington, and if public criticism of the civil service has become nastier, we would at least like to see those who presumably are our partners in this governing venture recognize and tell the truth -- at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue -- parading around with no clothes.
There is a chain here, and something unpleasant going on along that chain known as "blame the next fellow." At one signals to his elected officials. He sees problems and conditions that he can't or doesn't want to deal with, and he tells his government to do it, while at the same time he says stop raising my taxes and stop regulating my life.
Congress hears the signals and goes off in several directions simultaneously. Its reactions are a rich blend of statesmanship and showmanship. It puts ideas through the wringer of ideology, sectionalism and party politics and passes the resulting laws on to the federal bureaucracy. Our ability to make those laws respond to the voter's needs is, as one might guess, limited. Things don't seem to work out, and everybody is frustrated. The Congress blames the bureaucracy, and the voter blames both of us.
It's time for our legislating and our taxpaying colleagues to recognize that our national venture is a complex one, that many of our problems have no simple, neat solutions. Our demands and needs are so varied that not all our regions or social and economic and special interest groups will necessarily be satisfied by any given law, policy or regulation. It's time to stop placing us civil servants in the middle of the fracas. We are all in this together. A little sensitivity and understanding would do a lot more than the present finger-pointing.
The civil service is not some foreign power. Nor is it an evading army. It is doing, in the best way it can, the jobs that have been assigned it. We can make mistakes like most people, and we have louts and lazies among us. But we think it's nonsense for those who are giving the marching orders -- the voters, the Congress and the president -- to ridicule us for following them.