Columns 2007

Bureaucrats do a needed job

I was listening to a show on NPR about the chaos caused in Iraq by the wholesale firing of all Baathists after the invasion.  While the reasons for the purge will probably be debated for a long time to come, and no one who has an ounce of sense in their heads doubts that some Baathists were very bad people, the result of the wholesale purge was total collapse of the civil service system in the country.

Yes, I can hear the laughter now from those who are thinking that maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad idea here. Get rid of all the bureaucrats. Cleanse the government.  Cut our taxes by saving money now spent on their over-inflated, undeserved salaries.

As a former bureaucrat, I’ve heard it all before.  And I just want to say, really?  You really want that to happen here?  First get rid of all the lawyers, then cleanse the government of all the career bureaucrats? Then…what?  Do you think the system will be better? More efficient? Less costly?

I will be the first to admit that there are people all over state, federal and local government bureaucracies who are marking time till they can retire to that nifty little condo they’re paying on in Florida or Hawaii or Mexico.  But in all my years in government service, I’ve never seen them as the majority. In fact, most of the real workers who kept the system going resented the “wait it out till retirement without rocking the boat” attitude these people personified because it just meant extra work for everyone else.

So listening to this show describe what happened in Iraq when the bureaucracy was summarily disbanded was quite fascinating.  Suddenly people realized all the things that were done by bureaucrats that were taken for granted because suddenly those things weren’t being done.  From obvious things like trash collection, animal control or pension checks mailed on time to the more hidden but still needed tasks of government, Iraqis suddenly realized that absence of functioning municipal agencies made the chaos worse. And while some people still lumped all Baathists together as a uniformly evil group of people, others were now wondering if perhaps they’d been just a bit precipitous in cleansing them from government.

Because it turns out that you pretty much couldn’t get a civil service job in Iraq under Hussein unless you joined the Baathist party. You couldn’t, for instance, teach in Iraq unless you were a Baathist.  So every schoolteacher was a Baathist even though many were no more active in the party than most of us are in the party of our choice. I wonder how many of the regular folks in Iraq, the ones who had the skills to fill a position if only they would register with the Baathist party, in fact registered as Baathist to be able to have a job, work at their chosen career, feed their family and pay their bills.

When I was growing up, my parents worked a small grocery store and on any given week had no idea if they would come out ahead, owe money or break even.  They wanted their children to get government jobs so that we would have some security.  My brother became a public school teacher and I became many things, all of which led me to employment with the feds, the state or the North Slope Borough. We both worked hard and deserved the pay we got and I resented the periodic eruptions from people who thought all bureaucrats were fat cats feeding at the public trough.

I think the people in Iraq started to understand this when the lights went out, the trash piled up, the checks stopped coming, nurses and doctors couldn’t be found at government hospitals and teachers sat home unable to teach. 

We spend a lot of time griping about the bloated bureaucracy in this country. But generally speaking, we all want those government services there when we need them.  Because this is America, we have some assurance that the people in those positions can do their jobs no matter which party is in power because they didn’t get them based on their political affiliation. Just another reason we don’t often recognize for why we should be so happy to live in America.

I’m not going to officially proclaim this “Hug a Bureaucrat Day” because I think that could just get messy in ways I don’t want to imagine. But you could do worse than say thanks to people who hear the word so very rarely from the public they serve.