Thursday, February 08, 2007

In Defense of Bureaucrats

From the archives:

Elected, accountable politician vs. faceless, unelected, nearly unfireable bureaucrat:
Civil servants range from deadwood to brilliant . . . . But . . . Bureaucrats spend careers addressing particular problems, learning some system all the way through. They accumulate a lot of local knowledge and familiarity with the players. The fish passage office at Fish and Game has a stunning amount of knowledge about what fish passages structures work and which ones are expensive failures. No one else, not professors or consultants, has seen as many fish ladder installations over such a wide geographic range as these bureaucrats. . . . I like the idea that the person who sets broad policy and direction should be accountable [to voters]. But . . . A political appointee cannot possibly know enough about all the things an agency does to have meaningful opinions at the level of regulations.
...
Privilege.
Regulations in general are trying to correct something, for some reason. Bureaucrats don’t write them for recreation. They write environmental regulations to correct an imbalance that arose over time. It may be a comfortable imbalance for you, one you have always known, that you have grown so accustomed to that it feels like a right. But there is a cost somewhere, . . . If you hate regulation, approve of anything that would delay some regulation, you are, in essence, saying that because the status quo is acceptable to you, you are happy to let other people and the earth bear the costs of your lifestyle and existence. I have no respect for that.
...
..there are only two times a regulation is going to matter to you[: (1)]if it annoys you[, or (2)]if it works. If my friend’s work means your kid breathes easy through the night, if changing THM thresholds saves your pregnancy, it’ll matter to you. But you’ll never know . . . that some bureaucrat spent six years on that. Even if you read the regs, you wouldn’t know that damage to you was averted. . . . you are the ungrateful recipient of the results of thousands of regulations. You think that living un-assaulted by poisons you can’t see or trace to a source just happens, naturally. That isn’t the case, and hasn’t been since the Industrial Revolution. You are constantly guarded by environmental regulations that you resent as an abstraction, as somehow “too much.”
...
"Why not regulate the consequences you are trying to avoid rather than the means that at this particular moment in time bureaucrats think will probably lead to those consequences?"
[Those regulated would ask] if we’d lost our minds. [Those regulated do not have the time or resources to understand how all of their actions affect the environment. Enforcement would be impossible.]
...
I don’t think that Byzantine regulation, unfair enforcement and make-work meddling are a result of top-down regulation. I think they’re just what humans do. A bunch of hippies at a consensus-based house meeting can come up with ornate policies to rival those from any top-down regulators.
[Have you lived in a co-op?]
...
There are very many times when bureaucrats know there will be negative outcomes, but accept them as trade-offs because the overall situation will still be better. There are times when they’re surprised by negative outcomes. There are times when what one group considers a negative outcome is what the bureaucrats considered the point. . . . Every negative outcome has a constituency dedicated to making that consequence the most important thing in a bureaucrat’s life. We do not get to dismiss much.

. . . I have to acknowledge that the accumulated codes are painfully dense thickets, too tangled for easy use by our citizens, complicated, with internal contradictions. I want to talk about how civil servants doing their best end up making systems that are so frustrating that “bureaucrats” and “regulations” are nearly epithets.
...
I am always disappointed by public meetings. We hold public meetings for people to give us comment, and we never get the kind of comment I hope for. . . . We get professionals who are there on behalf of an organization to protect an economic interest. Those folks give sophisticated, one-sided comments, which is probably fine [a]s long as we get professionals from all sides . . . . And then we get private citizens. . . . When you’re up in front of those meetings, you can spot ‘em. Your heart just sinks as they approach the microphone. There is so much wrong, and you don’t even know where to start. This meeting is expensive to hold, what with the consultants and staff on overtime, and you can’t spend people’s time discussing this guy’s problems. You don’t even know how to have this conversation with this guy. . .

If we want to uphold our beliefs that all voices have equal value in our country and that citizens guide the governance . . . excluding types of views and voices becomes the exclusion of types of people. Even though it would be so much easier to only deal with the clear thinkers at public meetings, in the end, ease is not what we are after. Because we are representatives of the state, because we are truly civil servants, participatory democracy requires that we shape our public dealings to make everyone heard.

No comments: