The Honor in Bureaucracy

“It would be my honor.” I’m not sure when I first started saying that as an answer to requests, but it has become a sort of habit. Though I never say it if, in fact, I don’t mean it; meaning it has become the norm and not the exception because when people think of me for whatever reason, I consider it an honor – so I mean it a lot. The responses I get are what you would expect; everything from “thanks” to “the honor is mine”. But recently, in one of those key occasions when the connection was truly an honor for me, I received a “the honor is mine” with one singularly disturbing qualifier: The exact response – from a well respected person at the headquarters office – was, “I am just a faceless bureaucrat. The honor is mine.” In saying so, he meant to imply (or did whether he meant to or not) that his work, simply because it is done at the higher management levels, is less honorable than mine. I disagree – completely.

In my organization, as in most, there is a separation between those who “do” and those who “regulate”. I’d bet one could hardly find a headquarters office anywhere in the world that isn’t held in at least mild contempt by the people not at headquarters. Their ability to hand out edicts that affect the daily lives of those outside the halls of power often come without the explanations we think we deserve. Holding meetings in break rooms and back offices , we “front liners” get drawn into the easy arguments of dismissal: “They just don’t get what’s going on in the field.” one will say. “They’ve forgotten what its like.” complains another. And as I spoke of in my previous post (The Opposite of Mentoring), this trash talk about group within the organization has a negative impact; the cost of which is the undeserved feeling that a job at headquarters is something less than a job anywhere else.

Some (a rare few) enterprises work well without any central control or oversight, and I am a huge fan of flattening organizational charts to their squattiest level possible, but the value of the 360 view is undeniable. The consideration of everything, not just the immediate, but its impact on the organization as a whole is necessary. It is vital. And, it can only be done – or rather is best done – by bringing a bunch of smart people together to lend their knowledge to the common purposes of the organization. Those of us in the field (doing the “real” work) need those considerations, and we need someone else to do it – we are too busy; we are focusing on the immediate, the now, the customer, the business at hand. I, for one, have always been thankful for all the things that someone else had to think about to make my job easier or safer or better.

The time I have because someone else is taking care of well – everything else – adds up to more time to train, more time to prepare, more time to operate. It was someone at headquarters that researched the gear I use (I never worry about that), it was someone at headquarters that worked out the legalities of any actions I might take (I don’t worry about that), it was a bureaucrat that made sure I had funding for the training I’ve received. That bureaucrat is a necessary and vital part of the organization and no less important a link in the chain of my work (ocean rescue) as any other. That bureaucrat may very well be faceless to many – but his position and work is no less honorable than any other – especially mine.

Now, I am not such a cheerleader that I believe that my own (or any other) “home office” is the model of efficiency. Nor do I believe that it (or they) always makes good decisions on behalf of the operators in the field. But what I do believe is that it is hard to see the big picture when you are in it. It is almost impossible to do the job, and keep an eye on the ripple effects of doing the job. We – the operators, line workers, and other pointy end of the spear types – need the high cover provided by someone on the balcony looking in all directions. We need the accountants; we need the policy makers; we even need (hold on a second, I’m taking a deep breath) the lawyers. And, one of the main things we need from them is their steadfast belief in themselves as vital to our success. So a correction is in order, my dear headquarters friend: my job is only possible because you are there doing yours – the honor is most definitely mine.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Don Jacobson

Mario – Thanks for your wonderfully inspiring message. You’re absolutely right that many officials at headquarters do a tremendous amount to make life easier/better for “those that ‘do'” in the field.

Communication between headquarters and the field is critical. HQ needs to remember to ask those in the feel for input before big changes are made, as the biggest complaint from the field is often that HQ is either out of touch or doesn’t care. HQ can combat both those impressions by asking for input. By the same token, if the field needs something from HQ, grousing around the water cooler does nothing to fix it. When I hear people complaining, I like to ask them, “So, what are you going to do about it?” That usually gets their attention and they realize that they bear some responsibility for their situation (especially if they decide to do nothing to try and improve it). I’m always happy to coach them on finding effective ways to get the issue addressed.

Another thing that really helps is enabling people in HQ to get some experience in the field, whether it’s a detail assignment (long-term or short-term), or short site visits. Those at HQ tend to be much more motivated to support the field effectively and with creativity if they know the people and understand the context in which they work. It is equally useful for people in the field to get some experience at HQ, so they can learn how decisions are made and what constraints are faced by HQ staff. (That can help them learn how to ask HQ for help most effectively when they return to the field.)

I stayed overseas for my first 9 1/2 years in the Foreign Service. One reason I stayed out that long was that I wasn’t eager to deal with “all the bureaucracy” in Washington. Then a friend and respected senior officer commented to me that she loved working in Washington because it was “an opportunity to fix all those things in the field that we think are stupid” The light bulb went on for me right then, and I had a blast during the six years I spent in DC trying to help my colleagues in the field.


Amy Loveridge

I agree with Don- headquarters needs experience in the field and vice versa. Often a brief rotation can make all the difference when it comes to understanding the day-to-day experience and best intentions of both groups. I know I appreciate having had both experiences and hope that I don’t lose the valuable lessons I learned from the field.