Bureaucrat = Epithet

Is bureaucrat a bad word? At the risk of being labelled a heretic, my answer is an unequivocal “Yes!”

Now before you lob your government issued ID badge at me, let me clarify. I’m not saying bureacrats are bad. I’m not even saying bureaucracy is bad, despite my allergy to it. What we are talking about is the word “bureaucrat”, a term that suffers from a case of prohibitively negative PR. To the average American, the bureaucrat brand says, “Come, join us for a mind bogglingly stovepiped adventure in form filing!” Confronted by such patently negative connotation, I think it’s going to take more than just an optimistic reboot to make it flattering.

I think part of this stems from a lack of familiarity with what we do which leads to an unfortunate misconception about the nature of or work. Let’s face it, the most memorable contact most Americans have with public bureaucracy are through two things they hate doing: maintain their driver’s licensure and filing their taxes. This places bureaucrats in an unenviable position, as they bravely strive to provide high quality service to customers for whom gratitude is rarely an option. These bureaucrats are likely greeted with enthusiasm generally reserved for the dentist’s drill.

Setting aside my concerns about bureaucrat’s hopeless brand, the principal reason I dislike “bureaucrat” is that it places the emphasis on the wrong thing by emphasizing a risk averse and arcane way of doing business. I think there are myriad terms that serve us better: civil servant, Fed, and my favorite, public servant. Whereas bureaucrat emphasizes a way of working, Public Servant emphasizes the motivation underpinning that work. Nobody is in favor of bureaucracy, but millions of people already take a favorable view of public service.

Public Servants serve the public interest. Public Servants execute the will of the people. Public Servants are not only executors of government, they are the guardians of our democracy. This point is saliently made by Christopher Hayes in his article for The Nation, “In Praise of Red Tape“.

“At a time when the press failed to check a reactionary Administration, when the opposition party all too often chose timidity, it was the lowly and anonymous bureaucrats, clad in rumpled suits, ID badges dangling from their necks, who, in their own quiet, behind-the-scenes way, took to the ramparts to defend the integrity of the American system of government.”

While much attention is paid to the deficiencies of bureaucrats in the application of government, far less is paid to the critical role they play in defending against its misapplication. As guardians of our democracy, public servants alone are entrusted to implement the governance of the nation.

Much as I like this article, it promotes the caricature of the bureaucrat I would seek to quash. For like a dentist, nobody is really grateful for a bureaucrat until they need one. Yet for that reason I am optimistic. Though the impact of the financial crisis is decidedly negative, it presents a unique opportunity for public service to demonstrate its critical role in making the nation a better place. By revealing the dark side of leveraged self interest, we have a platform by which to promote the common good. While I laud Steve’s efforts to remove some of the tarnish from the word bureaucrat, I’d rather shift the focus to our shared commitment to the American people than even dignify that epithet with our acknowledgment.

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Adriel Hampton

You’re promoting the mission over the ID. Valiant, but not sure it’s the best tack. I prefer to be an “out” bureaucrat – talking about how interesting my work is, how good the benefits are, etc. – and watch the old stereotypes shrivel up and die. Kind of a Young Turk approach.


Good post. I like the rebuttal but I’ll take it a slightly different angle.

I agree generally the word has been tarnished in the public and can’t be reclaimed publicly. I think to the general public “public servant” is probably the best word. I generally like it although it does feel a little too Mother Teresa to me.

I’d like to reclaim the word “bureaucrat” as a true insider’s word. Kind of like the musician’s favorite musician. To me, my favorite bureaucrat understands large organizations for what they are. While we all love innovation (myself #1), bureaucracies exist for a reason and there is real skill in navigating them. The true bureaucrat understands the landscape, his/her deck of cards, the timing, and knows how to play them.
It’s easy to complain how hard it is to get stuff done in a big organization (GE, DHS, etc). It takes skill knowing how to navigate an idea or project through the bureaucracy to completion.

The true bureaucrat truly understands the game. How to play the budget game, get good people into your organization, manage the transition, and in the end – get good projects done to help improve gov’t.