Recently, Johns Hopkins University political scientists Jennifer Bachner and Benjamin Ginsberg conducted a study of the unglamorous D.C. bureaucrat. These are the people who keep the federal government humming — the Hill staffers, the project managers and all those desk workers who vaguely describe themselves as “analysts.”
As Bachner and Ginsberg argue, civil servants exercise real power over how the government operates. They write and enforce rules and regulations. They might not decide what becomes law, but they have a hand in how laws are drawn up and how laws are implemented.
For all their influence, though, nearly all of these technocrats are unelected, and they spend most of their time with people who are just like them — other highly educated folk who jog conspicuously in college tees and own a collection of NPR totes.
In their new book, which is part ethnography and part polemic, Bachner and Ginsberg argue that Washington’s bureaucrats have grown too dismissive of the people they are supposed to serve. Bachner and Ginsberg recently sent around an informal survey to selected members of this technocratic class, and the results, they say, were shocking.
“Many civil servants expressed utter contempt for the citizens they served,” they write in their book, “What Washington Gets Wrong.” “Further, we found a wide gulf between the life experiences of ordinary Americans and the denizens of official Washington. We were left deeply worried about the health and future of popular government in the United States.”
All of this should be taken with a few caveats. First, Ginsberg is a self-described libertarian who writes with an ingrained suspicion of bureaucratic power. If you believe that federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration are red-tape machines, it’s easy to reason backward and conclude that shortsighted bureaucrats are part of the problem.
Second, the survey that Bachner and Ginsberg conducted was not scientific. They made their own list of 2,376 “government officials and members of the policy community,” whom they contacted through email. About 36 percent filled out at least some of the survey questions.
Most of these people were involved in policymaking in some way, either in the government — at the White House, on the Hill, as part of a federal agency — or adjacent to the government, at one of the city's many think tanks. It's an expansive definition of bureaucrat, but as the authors argue, all of these members of the “governing elite” play a role in how the sausage is made.
Since this wasn’t a random sample, and the authors don't tell us precisely what kinds of workers in what proportion were asked to participate, we have to take their word that this is a representative group of D.C. insiders.
Nevertheless, the results they present are eye-popping. On a wide range of issues, bureaucrats believe that Americans are ignorant. For instance, over half of them say that the public knows little to nothing about government crime programs, child care programs or environmental programs.
Predictably, the bureaucrats also think that the government should not take what the public says too seriously. Mostly, they believe that officials like them should use their best judgment instead of following public opinion.
A lot of this elitism is probably justifiable. When only 36 percent of adults can name the three branches of government, you wouldn’t want to hand over control of FDA to, say, your next-door neighbor. In the sample of bureaucrats that Bachner and Ginsberg looked at, the majority had master’s degrees or more. It should be a comfort knowing that there exists a specialized class of people who have dedicated their lives to understanding the intricacies of, say, tax credits for the poor or the diplomatic intrigues of the Caucasus.
Bachner and Ginsberg don’t dispute that many voters are ignorant. In their view, however, D.C. insiders are needlessly disdainful of the regular Americans they are supposed to be helping and that this breeds distrust on both sides. Perhaps that’s one reason, they say, that American faith in government is at a 50-year low.
“Ordinary folk might not know a lot, but that’s not an excuse to ignore them,” Ginsberg said in a recent phone interview.
He continued, “My doctor knows more than I do about medicine. My accountant knows more that me about tax law. But all these folks feel a fiduciary responsibility to accept my opinions so they can provide me with the best service. They don’t say, ‘You’re an idiot, just shut up.’ "
For their part, the bureaucrats are aware that they’re not average Americans. In fact, respondents to the survey tended to overestimate the distance between their own opinions and those of the general public. More often than not, they misjudged how the public felt about federal spending on various programs, such as education or social security or defense.
Bachner and Ginsberg call this phenomenon the fallacy of “false uniqueness.” They interpret it as a sign that many public servants have internalized a sense of superiority. Perhaps, as they write, “officials and policy community members simply cannot imagine that average citizens would have the information or intellectual capacity needed to see the world as it is seen from the exalted heights of official Washington.”
To remedy the situation, the authors suggest term limits for civil servants and training to teach them to be more sensitive to public opinion. They also want bureaucrats to get out more. Why should government agencies be based in D.C., when the Internet and telecommuting make it easy to locate an office anywhere?
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office recently opened a satellite office in Silicon Valley to be closer to all of the tech companies. Bachner and Ginsberg urge other agencies to set up shop outside of the Beltway, where bureaucrats “might actually rub shoulders with their fellow Americans”:
Today, [Department of Education] employees all send their children to Northern Virginia or suburban Maryland schools (among the nation’s premier school districts), where they encounter a somewhat distorted picture of life in America’s beleaguered public schools. Imagine if the [Department of Education] dispersed many of its offices to, say, Oklahoma or Montana or Mississippi. The challenges facing school districts in these states are vastly different from those encountered in the affluent D.C. suburbs.
“Washington always claims to be looking for new ideas,” they write, acidly. “Perhaps these would be inspired by new scenery.”
We might take some of the same advice now, and exercise our empathetic skills. Anyone who has spent time D.C., who has encountered the city’s beleaguered civil servants, recognizes that “disdainful” might be too strong a word to describe them. If these technocrats are suspicious of public opinion, it is only that they believe that average Americans might change their minds if they had enough time to study the policy issue in depth.
When I spoke to Bachner and Ginsberg over the phone, I asked them if they might be over-interpreting their survey results. Did the data really show that bureaucrats harbored “utter contempt for the citizens they served”? Could it simply be that bureaucrats hold an accurately low opinion of the public’s expertise on policy matters?
Perhaps, they responded, but that still doesn't give bureaucrats license to ignore the public’s sentiments.
Fair enough. But respect, as the saying goes, is a two-way street, and Americans have a long and ignoble tradition of denigrating expertise. Today, nearly 40 percent of adults think there isn’t evidence for global warming. Skeptical parents won't vaccinate their children, endangering their communities with breakouts of preventable diseases like measles. So maybe we can make a deal. If we want experts to listen to our opinions, we might also do them the courtesy of sometimes listening to their opinions, too.