Is Bureaucrat a Bad Word?

Bureaucrat. For some people, the word conjures up a bad bad feeling. Kafkaesque nightmares. Dreams of a risk-adverse, say no mentality.

Technically the word “bureaucrat” means member of a bureaucracy (defined as an administrative structure of a large or complex organization.”

To me, I always liked the sound of the word. It sounded like someone who had knowledge of a system. Who knew the institution and knew how to play the game. A person who knew how to push something through an organization, knew when to play it low, and always had a card in their back pocket. They weren’t sleazy and they really cared about people and the mission. They just knew it took some skill in getting anything done.

Maybe that sounds bad to people but I’ve always been a realistic. Big organizations require a certain amount of street sense and navigation ability. You have to learn how read people. Who are the players? What are their motivations? Learn how to read policies and the “real rules.” How to motivate someone who has no stake in your project.

And that’s why when I started GovLoop, I added the question – “Who is Your Favorite Bureaucrat?” A number of people have written me expressing that they don’t like the question as it brings a negative connotation to them. Others have simply wrote that there is no such thing.

But I want to start a movement to reclaim the word “bureaucrat.” Want to join? Or help me create a new word…Suggestions welcome.

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Profile Photo Emma Dozier

Hmm, according to dictionary.com, a bureaucrat is “1. an official of a bureaucracy.
2. an official who works by fixed routine without exercising intelligent judgment.”

I thought definition 2. was only connotation! It definitely takes a special member of a large organization to be positive enough to think they can instill change even in such a top-down environment that bureaucracies stereotypically are. And clearly we all are those positive, change-inspiring people here.

How about … Loopocrat? heh.

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Profile Photo Molly Moran

The term ‘bureaucrat’ and ‘bureaucracy’ come about from the days when we had bureaus (desks) to store our files instead of hard drives and ‘clouds.’ A bureaucrat was someone who kept his or her currency (information) close at hand, locked in the bureau drawer. Bureaus, of course, cannot be networked, and it was more valuable for a bureaucrat to only spend his currency (ie, share his knowledge) when beneficial to him. Now, however, we have sites like GovLoop, or at State, Diplopedia, which combines the knowledge from the different bureaus into one space to which we all have the key.

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Profile Photo Adriel Hampton

I vote for reclaiming the word!
I like it, and I find that it has some positive meaning as you describe. Plus people like it when you are honest and don’t try to be all cutesy about what it is we do. We are part of large systems, and we have to know how that works. I also find that it is the word of academic texts.
I find the best transformation comes from refreshing established meanings, not trying to create new buzzwords. The word itself is not bad: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bureaucracy
Go, Steve!

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Profile Photo Michael Quinto

The irony is that the term bureaucrat has a pejorative connotation because of elected officials (who are actually bureaucrats) who try to gain votes promoting a less/smaller government message. These folks also don’t hesitate to blame the government when there is public outcry because of no governmental oversight (tainted foods/toys, etc) yet they continue promoting the “smaller government is better ” message.

Adding to the irony is the fact that these bureaucrats/elected officials are usually in office during the expansion of government.

I find myself defending the term ‘bureaucrat’ and have no problem continuing to do so.

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Profile Photo Darryl Perkinson

Adriel makes a good point but I have experienced the public perception of the word to be negative. I am so surprised that neighbors or acquaintances in conversations bash bureaucrats until they ask me what I do for a living and the redefinitions begin to fly I think if enough of us show that those behind the term are dedicated patriots we can reverse the negatives. I have always liked stressing the term public servant but many politicians used that term and sort of tarnished it.

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Profile Photo Daniel Honker

I especially agree with Molly’s comment – things are changing in bureaucracies. If wikis and blogs continue to grow in government usage, the stovepipes will continue to break down. I guess the central question is “can government fully adapt to the more collaborative world?”

And I agree that “bureaucrat” has gotten such an awful rap because of a lot of politicals running against it in rhetoric only.

Reframing might be useful here — if the term “bureaucrat” is hopelessly lost, let’s reframe it as “public servant.” True, it’s not the same thing — bureaucrat describes a node in an organization, and public service hints more at the democratic nature of government. But it’s a good alternative that would be harder to tarnish and might better encapsulate the changing function of government.

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Profile Photo Steve Ressler

Great comments. I generally stand by my feelings about the word and believe it can be reclaimed. But it has been tarnished so bad by politicians and even us govies (when something is bad at work everyone complains about the bureaucracy).

I actually think the two words have separate definitions for me.

Public servant – I think anyone working for the gov’t is technically a public servant. And it also includes non-profits and others serving the public. I like this word but it is almost too universally good IMHO. I’m no Mother Teresa devoting my life to the mission. I’m into the mission but the opportunities/pay/benefits are pretty good as well.

By bureaucratic I generally mean someone who works in a large organization (bureaucracy) and really knows how to play the game and get stuff done. 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.

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Profile Photo GeekChick

If you support my effort to reclaim the word patriot, then I’ll stand by you to reclaim bureaucrat! Deal?

I have to share the feelings posted by others, that this word is hopelessly tarnished — as I messaged to you early on. I hate the word, myself. Like some others here, I use and prefer the term public servant. In fact, when I started in gov’t, the agency I was with actually used the term civil servant, which really got me thinking. I like being a public or civil servant. It shows that I am serving my country (yes, there are ways to serve your country other than enlisting).

Still, you go Steve!

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