Baiting Bureaucrats: The White House steps up its gibes at civil servants. Reagan needles them in nearly every speech, all but calling them lazy.--Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire, Sept. 18, 1981.
At 1 p.m. on Sept. 25, 1981, Edwin Meese III, considered second only to the president in authority, began a speech to a group of senior bureaucrats at a Marriott Hotel in Virginia. Meese said, "I can't think of any more important group in government except possibly the Cabinet. . . . I have a real appreciation, as does the president, of the value of this group."
At 9 that evening, in his fifth major television address, President Reagan gibed that some programs benefited "those who administer them rather than those who were the intended beneficiaries," and told a funny story, with bureaucrats the butt of the joke.
Reagan has fulminated against "the advocates of a different philosophy (who) are manning the barricades in those puzzle palaces on the Potomac." He has described "one of the most remote, protected areas of our country: the federal bureaucracy in Washington."
In light of the president's relentless public attack on career civil servants, what are we to make of Meese's words of praise and comfort?
The president and his sheer chutzpah aside, the explanation may be found in an ambivalence about bureaucrats within the minds of our recently elected leaders. Reagan's dominant image is that of bureaucrats who have their own agendas; who are allied with congressional staff and client groups to sabotage political initiatives; who are not that bright or creative (or they'd be out making money, right?); and who are, above all, survival specialists.
The opposite picture of career executives as competent and indispensable is being slowly absorbed by some of the Reagan team as they learn their jobs, gain respect for their staffs and relay their discoveries up the line.
The dominant image--government people as disloyal and incompetent--is the product of ritual-level thinking (e.g., "politicians are crooks," or "Mexicans are lazy") buttressed by undeniable anecdotal evidence. Of course there are government executives who are less than competent. Of course some have conspired with committee staffs and special interests to resist budget cuts. When bureaucrats exceed the bounds of propriety, they should be disciplined or dismissed.
In truth, however, such excesses are infrequent. Bureaucrats want to be trusted; they want their experience to count; they want to be part of the action. When they are appreciated, they are overwhelmingly loyal and effective. Shutting them out, much less maligning them, produces the very mind-set that Reagan and Co. predicted coming in--a classic case of self- fulfilling prophecy.
But what kind of a voice should senior civil servants have? They were not, after all, elected by the 26 percent of the American voters who gave the president his mandate for change. The issue is distorted by Donald Devine, head of the Office of Personnel Management, who says things such as "the task of the civil service is to administer and manage, not to determine policy." He cites with reverence Max Weber, a German sociologist, who half a century ago tended to see employees as interchangeable parts. Public administration today has moved as far from Weber as psychiatry has moved from early Freud, a development that may have escaped Devine, whose own management experience is not readily apparent.
Still, Devine is right: civil servants should not determine policy. Nor do they believe they should, with a scattering of dissidents at the margins. They do believe, however, that their experience should be placed at the disposal of elected and appointed policy makers, and seriously considered. That done, the vast majority will earnestly try to carry out whatever plan is decided upon.
Devine does not just talk. He acts out his limited and unfortunate view of the role of career people. First, he has surrounded himself with a cadre of personal loyalists, a sure sign of insecurity and distrust of career staff, leading to insulation from differing views. And meetings with his senior staff tend to be for the purpose of giving him information, not opinions or alternatives. The staff is generally dismissed without being informed of Devine's reaction or decisions.
Many of Reagan's Cabinet officers have learned that their career staffers are first rate. Among those appreciating the value of senior careerists are the likes of Attorney General William French Smith, Secretary of the Treasury Donald Regan and Interior Secretary James Watt. (Watt? Yes, Watt.)
The combined effects of the Reagan-Devine treatment and the pay cap may be devastating. Many of the best people are leaving. Treasury reported to Congress that it is at a "severe disadvantage in recruiting from business." Interior said it is hard to attract executives; fewer excellent people want in; early retirements are up. At NASA, turnover of senior people in 1979 was 6 percent; it now runs about 20 percent. Less experienced people are monitoring contracts running to billions of dollars and are supervising programs affecting millions of citizens. On the other side of the table are the sharpest minds in industry. Can we really expect inexperienced people to safeguard the public interest?
Or do you suppose that appointed people like Devine can do the job with the halfhearted support of the men and women who have been scorned, excoriated and--the ultimate put- down--patronized by men like Meese who must believe that civil servants can neither read, hear nor remember.