The Good Bureaucrat09-24-2017
The Good Bureaucrat
[caption id="attachment_19201" align="alignright" width="300"] By Adam Jones, CC BY 2.0[/caption]
"So what does good bureaucracy look like? If you think about any public good—infrastructure, defense, the environment, the market—chances are there lurks in the background a bureaucratic agency charged with drafting regulations, monitoring compliance, and enforcing penalties. Bureaucracy is often thought of as the instrument that we deploy in the service of the public good. But can we also speak of bureaucracy as a public good in its own right? What is its proper role in the everyday functioning of a democratic state, and how can we enable bureaucrats to live up to such a role?"As Zacka writes, the inquiry into good bureaucracy is "especially relevant and primed for attention now, at a time when people have lost trust in their government and its policies." He wonders if there is a "sensible rationale behind red tape, technocracy, and an independent-minded administrative apparatus." His argument is that bureaucracies, when they function well, strive for important values of efficiency, fairness, and responsiveness. But bureaucracies, Zacka writes, often fall short of their goals.
"To say that bureaucrats must attend to a plurality of values is not to say that they are always successful in doing so. Any organization would be hard pressed to be efficient, fair, responsive, and respectful at once—let alone one that is chronically understaffed, underfunded, and forced to operate in a hostile political environment. Bureaucrats often have no choice but to make difficult tradeoffs between different dimensions of value. In such conditions, it is proper to feel conflicted. It would be worrying, in fact, if one did not. But while moral conflicts of this kind occur occasionally in our ordinary moral life, three features of frontline work in public service make them particularly hard to bear. The first is that bureaucrats experience these value conflicts relentlessly, since the demand for public services never abates. The second is that any half-measures or compromises can have serious consequences for clients. By accelerating the pace of work, for example, a caseworker might not build an intimate enough rapport for a client to open up about sensitive topics such as domestic violence. Conversely, by slowing it down, other clients might be late on receiving a check they desperately need. Navigating such conflicts is distressing for bureaucrats because, as a frontline worker, you are personally implicated in the process. As I learned from taking over DeShawn’s role as a receptionist, it is not the “bureaucratic state” that lets a client down, but you. As a street-level bureaucrat, you are the face of the institution—the immediate cause of clients’ despair, frustration, and anger, and the first to witness it. It is hard not to feel complicit and not to blame yourself. You start wondering whether you might in fact be the one failing clients. However hard and conscientiously you work, you cannot shake off the thought that you might have been able to do more or better. How long can you think of yourself as a competent and dedicated public servant when you are forced to flout that ideal daily? Knowing that the problem is structural in nature is little consolation when you are the one who has to make the tough calls, and when you are seen as such by those who bear the consequences of your choices. Over time the psychological pressure builds and, if left unchecked, takes its toll. Some are able to put up with it by compartmentalizing and distancing themselves from their actions. Others burn out. A great many, however, respond as social psychologists would have us expect: through cognitive distortions that simplify the moral landscape and thereby reduce the sense of conflict they experience. Since they cannot live up to the demands of the role, they narrow their understanding of these demands so as to be able to live up to them. Frontline bureaucrats often pick one dimension of the role and dedicate themselves unreservedly to it, to the exclusion of others. Some come to think of themselves as caregivers, devoting themselves to particular clients regardless of the consequences. Others become fixated on upholding program requirements and making sure that no one takes unfair advantage of existing provisions. And others become absorbed in seeing clients as rapidly as possible to maximize the number of those they can assist. Moral specialization along these lines emerges as a coping response to the pressures of everyday work. It reduces the sense of conflict that one experiences, at the cost of a reductive understanding of one’s responsibilities. Public service agencies thus find themselves in a bind. The proper implementation of public policy depends on their capacity to foster a workforce attuned to a plurality of values. And yet, the nature of everyday work at the frontlines of public service rewards narrow specialization."Another problem with bureaucracies is that they are, by their nature, impervious to democratic control. Hannah Arendt understood the power of bureaucracy but she also saw bureaucracy as the "rule of nobody."
"In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant."In writing about the student protests of the 1960s, Arendt concluded that much of the violence was a direct result of the rise of bureaucracy. Because bureaucracy insulated government from the people, student protesters rightly concluded that free speech and free assembly were politically irrelevant. "Huge party machines have succeeded everywhere to overrule the voice of the citizens, even in countries where freedom of speech and association is still intact." Thus, "the greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence." Zacka wonders if perhaps the inertia that bureaucracies provide is a public good. By resisting change, bureaucracies provide a buffer against populism and the excesses of democracy. In the age of Trump, he writes, "The very attributes of bureaucracy that had earned it condemnation from across the political spectrum—its alleged inertia and inefficiency, questionable claims to expertise, and lack of responsiveness to political control—had now become virtues." What Arendt points to, however, is that violence is the cost of such bureaucratic virtue. As bureaucracy disempowers the citizenry of a democracy, the easiest response to the failures of argument, persuasion, and debate is the turn to violence. Which might suggest that far from tempering the populist spirit as Zacka suggests, the magnitude of modern bureaucracy may be one essential cause of our increasingly populist and violent response. —Roger Berkowitz
Corruption and Popcorn
[caption id="attachment_19210" align="alignleft" width="300"] By Matt A.J., CC BY 2.0[/caption] Hannah Arendt warned against responding to corruption with satire and cynicism. It is all too easy for elites to see corruption as simply further evidence of the decay of standards and thus to laugh knowingly at further evidence of moral decay. Masha Gessen—who will be speaking at the Hannah Arendt Center's 10th Annual Conference Crises of Democracy—explores the dangerous fun that can be had at watching corruption in action.
"Here is one way to take stock of the ways in which this year has changed us. Consider three stories of alliances—or misalliances—unfolding in three different important institutions in this country. One involves Congressional Democrats and the president in Washington; the second is a story of political troublemakers descending on Berkeley; and the third involves political actors welcomed and not welcomed by Harvard. These are stories of new alignments and battles over legitimacy. All three showcase shattered expectations, both institutional and personal, and represent new and profound failures of moral compasses. “At the moment it’s the Donald, Chuck, and Nancy show,” chuckled Congressman Adam Schiff, Democrat of California, speaking at a luncheon in New York City last week. He said it as if it were a good thing, if a strange one; he added that things did need to get done. It’s been less than two weeks, and it’s not clear how much has been achieved—an agreement on the debt ceiling was followed, a week later, by mixed messages on DACA—but the spectacle of the Senate Democrats’ leader laughing with Trump and bragging to colleagues that the president likes him has grown almost familiar. The New York Times wasted no time in announcing that Trump had “swerved left” (whatever such an old-fashioned description of political direction may mean in the case of the president). The country got out the popcorn and settled on the couch to watch a season of jolly deal-making."Form more information visit: http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2017/09/18/three-tales-of-moral-corrosion/
The Poet's Voice
[caption id="attachment_19199" align="alignright" width="212"] By David Shankbone, CC BY 2.0[/caption] Luc Sante remembers the poet and my Bard colleague John Ashbery, who passed away earlier this month:
"Ashbery’s was marked above all by a calm, discursive voice, going along at a walking pace, often seeming to have been caught in midstream, maybe half-heard from outside through the curtains. That voice could occasionally sound explicitly poetic or expressionistically fractured, but more often—and more consistently as time went by—it sounded conversational, demotic, mild, even-toned, deep-dish American. Its apparent placidity allowed for all sorts of things to appear bobbing happily in its current: recondite allusions, philosophical asides, foreign idioms, schoolyard jokes, forgotten cultural detritus of all sorts, even the occasional narrative or analysis or argument. Much of his work gives the impression of having been piped straight to the surface from his unconscious, although it certainly passed through a powerful poetic engine that determined line breaks and measured flow and regulated music. His reading voice maintained that imperturbable meandering pace, never succumbing to declamation or melodrama or the pregnant pauses of needier poets but issuing a steady stream of words in unexpected patterns, so that young poets would attend his readings not just to hear him but to furtively scribble the images and lines his had touched off in their own fugue states."Form more information visit: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2017/10/12/john-ashbery-1927-2017/