Can bureaucrats be interesting when the world demands that they be boring?

In a previous blog on his former site (See: The World Needs Us to Stop Being Boring), newly minted co-author Kent Aitken, expressed his lament at the fact that the public service is rich with unrealized creativity, extolling that the world needs us (public servants) to stop being boring.

While I whole heartily agree with Kent’s plea, I do with the following caveat (which I left verbatim as a comment to the original post):

What the world needs and what the world wants are two different things. In the arena of public perception bureaucrats always lose, stereotypes prevail and reputations are generally sullied until proven otherwise.

Intellectually, I get it. The accumulated history of bureaucracy writ large is rife with boondoggles and bafflegab.

Experientially, I’ve seen – and, as one could imagine, have been on the receiving end – of some pretty ridiculous things. Professionally though, its often hard to stay passionate about a vocation that is consistently dragged through the mud.

I suppose what I am saying is that the world may need us not to be boring but it certainly doesn’t want us to be interesting.

This tension, between what the public ‘likely needs’ and what it ‘demonstrably wants’ is, in my view, akin to the similar tension I see playing out between the time honored archetype of the ‘faceless bureaucrat‘ and renewed calls to celebrate the public service. While I am reserving further comment on this issue for now, I whole heartily encourage you to read both of the articles linked to in the paragraph above.

Both are written by former Clerks of the Privy Council (Mel Cappe and Alex Himelfarb respectively) and come on the heels of a recent Public Policy Forum testimonial dinner. You may also wish to read this Toronto Star Editorial, though in my opinion, its fairly vacuous.

Below you will find some questions I’d like to discuss as well as excerpts from both articles to wet your appetite; if you have any thoughts, I’d encourage you to share them in the comments below.

Questions I’m pondering

  • Can bureaucrats be interesting when the world demands that they be boring?
  • Can they remain faceless while being celebrated?

Excerpts from Cappe’s ‘faceless bureaucrats’

“We take for granted that each day, because of the work of dedicated and committed Public Servants: Thousands of planes take off and land safely; hundreds of thousands of people come through the border securely; thousands of prisoners stay incarcerated and in remediation; our food is assured safe; thousands of communities are well policed; OAS, EI and CPP cheques are delivered to the right people at the right time in the millions; path-breaking research is undertaken in government laboratories; and nobody notices.”

“We need ministers to be the demanders of good analysis and evidence in the policy process. If ministers don’t ask, then public servants will get out of the habit of serving the public interest. I fear that we, they and the public are taking for granted the public service and analysis and evidence that should inform the policy process.”

Excerpts from Himelfarb’s Celebrating the public service

“Such celebrations [the Public Policy Forum Dinner] are pretty rare these days though the public service is an institution that deserves celebrating, and may need it now more than ever.

My hunch is that I can speak for all the former clerks here this evening that for us public service was deeply satisfying, a privilege, a source of pride, an opportunity to make a difference. Public service was more often than not fulfilling, and, believe it or not, even fun.

I wonder what proportion of public servants would say this today. Things were much easier for us. Public service was more valued. Public servants were treated with respect. Politicians sometimes got angry at our advice but they kept asking. The media often ignored us – we liked that – but they sometimes reminded Canadians that we existed and that we mattered. When I left academics to join the federal public service, I didn’t have to explain my decision. My friends and colleagues didn’t think it was strange. They thought joining the public service was worthy, maybe important, at the very least, respectable.

Things do seem different today. The public service is no less important but it sure seems more than ever under attack and from every side. Less valued. Less trusted. More under the gun. It must be less fun.”

Originally published by Nick Charney at


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Mark Hammer

Hi, and welcome back Nick. We’ll be neighbors when my department moves in the fall. We’ll have to do coffee.

I’m a loyal follower of Alex’s blog, so I’ve seen the content before. Still, well worth drawing others’ attention to it.

I guess the question to ask is “Interesting to whom?”. There are plenty of things that I can find interesting to myself, about how I do my job, some things that are interesting to co-workers or project-related colleagues, much less that is interesting to management, and even less that is interesting to Parliament or the public.

The vast majority of bureaucrats will never do anything that is all that interesting to a great many people. Some will, and they’re fortunate. Some do but are not able to convey just how interesting it is. But the rest of us toil away in obscurity, doing things that are interesting to ourselves occasionally.

The companion question is “What makes it interesting?”. Here we enter a bit of a conundrum. The workings of the bureaucracy rest on the presumption of trust. As a bureaucrat, one is entrusted with tending to certain things. While at least part of that trust arises out of signs and omens that we recognize when things are not quite as good as they might be, a much larger share arises out of the perception that things are humming along just smoothly, chaos-free, and standard operating procedure is thoroughly and thoughtfully planned out. The stability of things serves a rhetorical function in conveying trustworthiness.

So, we can’t be “interesting” all the time, which makes identifying the right amount of interestingness a tough target to hit.

But as Alex rightly notes, what attracts public interest may well be distinct from what merits public interest. What we do every day IS interesting, sometimes precisely because of its dependability. We don’t have to tart it up.

Carol Davison

Einstein said something like “everyone is a genius, but when you judge a fish by how well it climbs a tree it will die thinking that it’s stupid.” We keep demanding that everyone climb trees.

Dick Davies

Interesting? Boring? I think you are artificially limiting the choices to frame an issue. How about massively effective in the short term vs dribbling away precious time and money? Anyone in any position should be there because they can achieve better results than someone else. Although often not considered, that goes for bureaucracy as well.

Nicholas Charney

Mark, your last comments are very insightful and my own lead in was admittedly an open ended interpretation because I wanted to see what perspective others came stir from. What is going on in the background of my thinking on this one is the notion that civil servants are largely unappreciated and dragged through the proverbial mud at every opportunity. Interesting to me means doing work that is respected by the public, by elected officials and by fellow civil servants. Wait stands I’m of the opinion that this respect, in general, does not exist.

Christopher Whitaker

Boring == Death. In an age of austerity, if departments can’t show the public that they’re doing interesting/innovative and worthwhile things the department gets cut and you end up in the unemployment line. Doing interesting things doesn’t guarantee departments will be spared – but it does provide some level of protection.

And interesting doesn’t even have to be a good thing. The VA was super-swamped with claims and is doing the best it can with the resources it was given. But the moment talking heads on TV make calls for the Secretary’s resignation all of a sudden the proposed budget gives the VA more resources. (Regardless that the call for the resignation didn’t make any sense).

David Tallan

OK, Nick, now I understand where you are coming from: “Interesting” = respected, “boring” = disdained. With that in mind, it seems that you are asking, can public servants be respected when the world demands that they are disdained?

I’m not so sure that the world demands that. I think that one end of the political spectrum, interested in shrinking government, demands that. They’ve been very successful in framing the discussion. It’s difficult for public servants to challenge them since we are supposed to be non-partisan. The best we can do is to produce the best results we can and hope that the quality of our work will eventually provide the respect we deserve.

You also ask if public servants can remain faceless while being celebrated. I think it possible, especially since so many of us work in teams. You can celebrate the achievement of a team without highlighting (and putting a face to) the individual members of the team. But why is it so important that public servants remain faceless?

I think it again has to do with the non-partisan nature of the public service. Politician’s can’t be faceless. They have to be out there, in the public eye, to win them over. When public servants become too well known, there is a fear, I think, of competition with the politicians. Look at what happened in Canada to some public servants that were no longer faceless (I’m thinking of the Parliamentary Budget Officer and the former head of Statistics Canada).

That said, I think public servants can be well known and celebrated, successful at whaqt they do and respected, while remaining non-partisan. I’m thinking, for example, of an employee of the Canadian Space Agency, Commander Chris Hadfield.

Of course, people don’t tend to think of him as a bureaucrat.

Dave Hebert

Great question, Nick. I’ll admit I didn’t read the other articles, but my generalized response would be that government needs to be useful.

If we are interesting in the process, great — and I think we sometimes will be when we find ways to be useful such that the rest of the world says, “Wow, I can’t believe the government made THAT.”

It strikes me as a bit misguided (and perhaps potentially dangerous) for us in gov’t to say, “Today, my goal is to be interesting!” Just let that come with doing your job really well, and realize that sometimes it won’t come at all, even when you are excelling (such is the cheerful burden of the gov. employee).

Nicholas Charney

David – great point about Hadfield, his “persona” in this context is definitely something worth exploring more.