13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat V: the beauty of the bureaucrat

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
Wallace Stevens, 13 ways of looking at a blackbird

The idea that there is beauty in the acts of a bureaucrat may seem a shocking idea. Querulous. Contrary. Quixotic.

Are not bureaucrats grey, banal, the enemies of the great things, dull in their aesthetic sense, collectors of the petty and mean? Is this not the verdict of Hannah Arendt – the priestess of the public intellectual – on that archetype of the bureaucrat, the accounts clerk of the death camps, Adolf Eichmann, when she finds radical evil clothed in the banality of an unthinking, compliant bureaucrat?

Bureaucrats are commonly presented in comedies of muddling through. Fair to middling, mediocre, not beautiful, not striking a pose of lasting value. They are the shackles on the visions of the great artists, the exquisite leaders, the entrepreneurs. They are the measurers, the schemers and the quibblers, not the creators, the inventors, the performers of beautiful theatre.

To claim beauty in the bureaucracy, somewhere on that vast incomplete canvas of grey oils, is a thought at odds with my own reflections that the modern bureaucracy is a confederacy of dunces, an affront to its intellectual traditions, a terrible disappointment to those of us who believed we were joining an institution of mandarins, schooled in essays on practical moral judgement.

Certainly, the prospects for acts of true beauty and lasting cultural value from our decayed institutions seem poor. They have been overrun by patronage of the consultocrats. They are plagued by leaders who mistake their ambition to impress their patrons with boldness of purpose, clarity of vision, and persuasive thought. A head of a department will decide that they can prove their mettle to their political leader by using a tragic, deadly and rare event to force the institution they lead to do things it will not do. They will bend it to a different purpose, twist its laws against its principles, and turn hard cases into bad law. A problem that does not exist will be decorated with powerpoint charts of flimsy concepts – cohort segmentations, process maps of unique events, service models for half-baked ideas – and whenever someone stops and questions the quality of the thought, what is the response?  “Well the head of the department is very ambitious… They stand back and take a wider view…. They are pursuing ‘opportunistic reform'”.

Such thoughts, such projects, such pandering to the court are the antitheses of work of lasting value. It is actions like these that are destroying our public instiutions, turning them into a vanity theatre for a meritless and parasitic court. They are acts of vandalism, turning institutions with a cultural life of their own into the playthings of rootless reformers.

But I would not feel so strongly if I did not have an attachment to something at once both profound and connected to enduring value, and surely that attachment is to some kind of beauty that survives in these ravaged institutions. The subordinated people who must try to make some good from these fanciful reform projects fudge and dissemble and prevaricate in the hope that their more enduring ideas might survive these dark times. They raise their doubts. They question the speed with which all such follies rush to their bad conclusions. They sympathise with their fellow subordinates, perennially excluded from the club of the powerful, who sit around in rooms and speak ignorant contempt of their staff, and find a way to endure and survive. They repeat to themselves, when they cannot sleep at night, wracked as they are by these pantomimes of ambition, looking for some kind of comfort in profound thought, the words of Robert Conquest’s third law of politics: “The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.”

They cannot confront the court or its ambitious grandees. Heroic gestures of defiance will only bring ruin on their heads, and in any case are contaminated by the empty heroic gestures of their leaders. Pity the country in need of heroes? To conserve what matters most of the discovered genius of their institutions, they must practise not heroic, but ordinary virtues. They must practice not an art of declamations on a well-lit public stage, but an art of innuendos and inflections and samizdat.

They learn to suspect the forms of beauty of beloved by the politicians, senior executives and consultants who leech their work. These self professed masters of the universe admire design thinking, like Keating’s clean pure lines and beautiful sets of numbers. This is a beauty of power and dominance, of the kind that clears the slums in cities and finds in boxed cartoons in powerpoint the driving causes of human behaviour.

The beauty of the bureaucrat is humbler, messier, more intricate, quieter. It is a beauty of dappled things:

All things counter, original, spare, strange; 

   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) 

      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim; 

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: 

                                Praise him

(Gerald Manley Hopkins, Pied Beauty)

The god of the consultocrats is change. They worship it like a cargo cult. They use it to warn, intimidate, cower, and to excuse their thoughtlessness. Yet with all their change, they accomplish nil.

The authentic bureaucrat pursues a beauty that is past change. It is a beauty found in stooping to drink from the river of life, and other acts of humility. It is a beauty found in situations that are messes and that force all who act in them to stumble and drop all preconceptions. It is a beauty of perplexity, of thoughts that are intricate and hard to express. This kind of beauty is imperilled by the reign of terror led by the reformers and grand designers, the well connected pontificators, and the consultocrats. It is an endangered beauty amidst political disorder and institutional decay.

Yet it is also a kind of beauty for which we must feel in the depths of our soul a lifelong, painful loss. For only in the fires of that grief can we reforge our will to conserve, cherish and fight for the pied beauty of the bureaucrat.


13 ways of looking at bureaucrat IV: in unity is death.

13 ways of looking at bureaucrat IV: in unity is death.

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

Wallace Stevens, 13 ways of looking at a blackbird, stanza IV

The supreme fiction of government is the unity of politics and administration. This fiction is told through many conceits and many variations. Sam Finer’s glorious achievement, his multi-volume History of Government from the earliest times, written after his retirement from the university, distinguished decision-makers and decision-implementers. Woodrow Wilson, long before entering politics, as a young doctoral student, looked to the Prussian bureaucratic tradition to imagine a science of administration not dirtied by “the poisonous atmosphere of city government, the crooked secrets of state administration, the confusion, the sinecurism and corruption ever and again discovered in the bureaux at Washington” (“The Study of Administration” 1887, quoted Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay: from the Industrial Revolution to the Globalisation of Democracy (2014). There, in an unworldly puritanism sickened the patronage of politics, public administration was born as a field of study.

Weber composed his conceit differently, with a more tragic foreboding, as rational-legal authority. Duller economists compose mathematical formulae on the principal-agent problem to seek to explain away messy human problems. Both hide away in rules or in contracts the divisions between politics and administration.The Westminster system itself, that common resort of scoundrels among the top echelons of the bureaucracy, vests this fiction in myths of Ministerial responsibility and meritocratic appointments. And then there are the true believers in political will, reform, integrity or leadership, who dream that their vision of the world can be imposed through government as one. The leader, their Cabinet, the top officials, the minor officials, the public sector unions, the stakeholders will all get on board as one, and the great Reform, the last Utopia, will reveal itself to the world..

Two cannot be one. Nor can three, and even less any higher number. We live in unresolvable plurality. Our lives are long acts of distinguishing ourselves from others. It is in finding the differences in our being and living together with them, not confusing our leaders with “unifying intelligence,” that we find authentic identities and life-giving freedom. And it is only by abandoning the supreme fiction of unity that we can see truly the presence of the bureaucrat in governing.

After all, it is not as if bureaucrats have been much loved by the politicians who are the true rulers of governments. A government is, as both the Oxford English Dictionary and Stein Ringen (in his masterpiece, A Nation of Devils: Democratic Leadership and the Problem of Obediencedefine it, is a body of persons who govern a nation. That body of persons are the Ministers who form the ruling party. To distinguish the government from governing or the vast strange web of governance is to see clearly the blackbird flying into view like the holy spirit. As Ringen writes:

we need to unwrap the system that generates governance and explore what goes on inside it. For me, the relationship between the political bosses and their civil servants, for example, is very much a part of the mystery of governance, and I don’t want to hide that mystery away in a definition that says that both bosses and servants are parts of the same thing” (A Nation of Devils).

To see the differences, we need to look past the nice compliments and befuddling stories of cohesion traded by serving and retired witnesses of high politics. Behind closed doors, or when pressed by recurrent failures, the venom and the hatred of difference comes out. What better example than that great advocate of reform and vision, Tony Blair, who Ringen magisterially assays as a master of “activism in all things, and accomplishment in none”(A Nation of Devils). A master of appearing across his brief, Blair’s unifying intelligence could never grasp why the institutions at his command did not unify before his fluffy will. His whipping boy was the civil service. He would describe them as the “sinecure cynics who despise anything modern and are made uneasy by success” (Tom Bower, Broken vows: Tony Blair – the tragedy of power (2016)).

His recurrent sallies at reforming the National Health Service all failed, so that he resembled some latter-day Don Quixote, who had lost touch with reality through reading too many business magazines and crisply titled consultants’ charts. He surrounded himself with advisers who comforted him in his delusions, but he could not ever really see the real people in the institution and how it might be made to work better.  The civil service was always wrong, always a problem, always in need of reform and modernisation. Tom Bower’s remarkable account of Blair’s tragic years in power is informed by many interviews with the most senior and many more officials who served around Blair’s sofa court. Through their testimony they make clear that Blair ran a government at odds with itself, and with any decent culture of governing. Politics itself was fragmented, and his intellectual divorce from the “traditional culture of government during his decade in Downing Street” undermined all achievement. His undeclared civil war within government itself led to the tragic failures of Iran and Afghanistan; but more Bowers concludes:

“We now realise that the path to the two wars was not an aberration but all of a piece with the way his government behaved across its entire domestic agenda, especially in the areas of health, education, energy and immigration. In a tragic sense, Blair had been consistent.” Bowers, Broken Vows, p 594

Unusually, Bowers in his biography of Blair leaves the last word to a bureaucrat. There were three top civil servants, Cabinet Secretaries who served Blair – all competently and loyally in Bowers’ judgement. They all Bowers said, after witnessing the strife of politics and administration and Blair’s many questionable acts, later judged that “Blair had not been a laudable guardian of the public’s interest.” The book closes with the reflection of longest-serving under Blair of these Cabinet Secretaries, Richard Wilson:

“There are events during my period as Cabinet secretary that make me shudder at what I remember because we had high hopes and we were so disappointed. He promised so much, but in the end so little was achieved.” Bowers, Broken Vows, p. 594

More disappointment had been harvested from the supreme fiction of government. What might have been if this illusion had been dispelled, and stronger leaders of public institutions had acted with a belief that in unity is death?


Image source: Daily Telegraph

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat III: the craft of the cameo actor

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat III: the craft of the cameo actor
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
Wallace Stevens, 13 ways of looking at a blackbird, stanza III
Imagine yourself at a crowded and vexed public meeting. A few hundred ordinary people, that legendary topos, have gathered to discuss an issue that is causing concern in the community. It could be any one of the myriad of issues governments must decide in a fog of conflicting opinions, where complex layers of political, institutional, legal, professional, interest group and moral decision-making grind up against the life-worlds of these ordinary people. It might be about the siting of a new prison, or a proposal to redesign an important local medical service, or a provincial government’s plans to extend a train network in a way that damages some residents’ amenity. It might even be about more elevated topics – the directions of a country’s foreign policy, ways to promote new industries or anaesthetise dying businesses, how to protect people against violence, or ways to promote social cohesion in a world of disarray. The issue does not matter: let us focus on the roles of the actors on stage.
There will be a spokesperson for the government, under whose authority proceedings are convened. It may be the Minister. It may be a Minister’s trusted adviser. It may be a proxy in the form of an eminent person, a representative of the community, the chair of a review panel. Whoever they may be, they are the focus of the attention, and they are the person for whom the performances of this pantomime (to echo Stevens poem ironically, since this theatre is far from comic, far from pantomime) are made. There will be the protestors, armed with placards, t-shirts and slogans. There will be a few quietly intrusive representatives of the private interests which are most disturbed by any decision on the issue. These sleek fellows will usually be dressed in suits (if not ties, since they appear to be going out with the dodo at such events) and seated towards the front. They will speak in calm and insinuating terms, suggestive of an unwanted intimacy with decision-makers, and present themselves as a reasoned contrast to the abusive, angry protestors. There may be one or two academic experts, some of whom will have sided with one or other of the disputants. They may even have been invited to speak as an expert to help inform the audience, in a rite of evidence-based policy.
In the shadows and the wings, there will be a few bureaucrats. They may not say much. Then again, they might say a lot. They may be put on the spot by the outraged community activist, who is exasperated with decisions made without us, and challenged to find the best methods to defuse and deflect anger. They may be asked questions by lawyers with attitude, which these advocates know they cannot answer without embarrassing their Minister. Then again, they may perform a part with calm assurance: quickly bringing a long and convoluted question  to the nub of an issue; concisely summarising the key points of debate; displaying a virtuoso command of the statistical and scholarly information that can help guide a war of passions. Their assurance may be completely silent, like a playwright gently nodding approval of a troupe’s fine realisation of his script.
However well or poorly performed, this is the whirl in the autumn winds. The flight of the bureaucrat in this flurry can only be made with craft. Craft is the enemy of management and tactless innovation. But craft is the ally of those who seek to govern well. We will know the ordinary virtues of governing well only through the craft skills of the bureaucrat. We will applaud the fine performance – even if we do not realise – not only because of the striking poses of the leading men and women, but in response to the subtle tissues sewn by the acting craft of the scarcely known cameo artists whose careers are made in shadows.
Image source: Van Gogh, Wheatfields via Harper’s Magazine

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat (II): the three-eyed raven

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat (II): the three-eyed raven

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

Wallace Stevens, 13 ways of looking at a blackbird, stanza II

In Game of Thrones the three-eyed raven is the seer who is withdrawn from the world, and yet travels, embodied as a raven, to witness the world’s events, even though he already knows everything, from the beginning to the end. His third eye multiplies his perspectives exponentially. It gives him a greater vision of both the past and the future, but no more ability to influence events. Indeed, his knowledge humbles him. He does not seek to change the world, but only to be a compassionate witness, a servant to the fates, and to find his successor in the seer’s tree, Brandon Stark.

Game of Thrones is a melodrama of power, about a world in which power is dictated by warrior codes of honour, family, and renown. It is not a world of power peopled by many bureaucrats. There are the maisters, like the loyal servant of the Starks at Winterfell, who is pledged to serve Theon Greyjoy despite his bloodlust and his folly. There are the spymasters and social climbers, like Little Finger and Varys. But is it possible to see the three-eyed raven as a symbol of a certain kind of bureaucrat?

Another fable of sorts may sharpen the image. Winston Churchill once said that if you put five economists in a room, you get five opinions. Unless, that is, one of the economists is Mr Keynes (John Maynard Keynes), in which case you get six.

I doubt these days if you put five bureaucrats in a room you would get five opinions. You would be lucky to get two. Some would say we can do whatever you wish Mr Churchill. Most would take their lead from the first to express a view, lock in behind it and reassure the Prime Minister that this was a big idea that would secure long-term reform. One or two might quibble about certain risks, but be careful to ensure they were not being seen as sticks in the mud, sceptical of the benefits of change. “I am sure our communications people can hammer out some lines – just a few dot points – that will manage this, Minister,” they might say.

There is, however, at least so I hope and dream, within the scarred and decaying world-tree of government some trios of blackbirds, ready to sing some different songs. They are hard to find these trios since so many have been driven out over the last twenty years as the intellectual culture of the bureaucracy has succumbed to waves of bad ideas and thugs disguised as clerks. But in a few places, not least in my mind, they endure. What do you see when you look at such a bureaucrat?

You see a person of a genuinely open mind, who is capable of generating multiple perspectives on an issue. Such a bureaucrat might, for example, be tasked with devising ways to reduce alcohol problems in the community. They will look around and see quickly that the stakeholders are grouped into armed camps, each convinced in their convictions. On one side is public health, convinced that if you control availability – tax and ban – the problems will go away. On the other side, is industry who will say you need to do something about the problem drinkers, and with a sometimes mixed conscience assure you that regulations always fail. Such bureaucrat will ask is there not a third way, or a fourth, and even a fifth. They will investigate each of the many alternative paths, even if none accompanies them along that way. And they will come back and ask – what do the drinkers have to say about this? What about the principle of nothing about us, without us? Since such bureaucrats can speak many tongues, they will hear the subtleties in every case of special pleading. They will reach across the barricades of entrenched groups, and ask attentively about conditions there. They will present each piece of advice not as a “case for change,” but as a scene from a never-ending drama. The characters will be vividly drawn. They will speak in their true voice. The conflicts will be fundamental – like Weber’s warring gods of ultimate values – and the audience will receive no trite fable. They will be asked to search their own depths for their own most authentic answer, and will know they have responded to a deep question. “What shall we do, and how shall we arrange our lives?”

I cannot be sure how many share my sense of such a vocation of bureaucracy. I know we appear today to be scarce, and even under siege. But I live in the faith that this fragment of culture – and governing is culture, a form of human conduct – is worth preserving. It is a tradition that may be imperilled, but cannot be allowed to die. These figures must persist: the three blackbirds in the tree who give choices to how we arrange our lives together, the three-eyed raven who sees the manifold possibilities of past, present and future, the bureaucrat whose inquiry makes possible choices, compromises and peaceful cohabitation in our society, fragmented into pluralistic totalitarianism, who neither listen, nor speak nor open their minds to strangers.

Inlaid on the marble floor of the Queen’s Hall of Parliament House in Melbourne are these words from Proverbs 11:14: “Where no Counsel is the People Fall; but in the Multitude of Counsellors there is Safety”.


Image: Queen’s Hall Vestibule, Parliament House of Victoria

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat: vigilance amidst stillness

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
(Wallace Stevens, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, stanza 1)
We citizens flatter ourselves sometimes by believing that government, big brother, and ultimately some bureaucrat somewhere in a police or intelligence agency, is really watching us. The ever vigilant state is more a paranoid dream of libertarians, artists and entrepreneurs – all rebels against bureaucratic rule – than a genuine historical phenomenon. Yes, there have been states where individuals and their errant minds have been tracked down, followed, and described in exacting, excruciating detail. Anna Funder’s Stasiland recounts the underworld of eternal vigilance created by one such state. More powerfully, I recall that Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem was painstakingly written on cigarette papers, committed to the memory of her friend, and then silently burned so that no all-seeing eye of the KGB would detect her lament of dissent.
It is also true that we live in times of both unprecedented scrutiny and uninhibited exposure of our digital communications. The collaborations between national intelligence agencies and large information technology firms, exposed by the leaks of Edward Snowden and to a lesser extent Julian Assange, have created not an ever-twitching, omniscient eye, but a vast and messy drain in which all the banal facts and words and digits of our lives swoosh down into a dense black big data mess. We are told that clever algorithms and super-smart graduates of the best universities can see patterns in this oozy, sticky mess. I wonder if this is just hubris.
In any case, the super-spies huddled over their super-computers are a rare and atypical form of bureaucrat. And their form of vigilance is not the only kind practised by other bureaucrats. For the most part bureaucrats observe their field with the same tools we all have – publicly available information, intuition pumps that read social behaviour, the ready-made ideas that circulate in the popular press and magazines, the cultural memes of our times. This great majority of bureaucrats content themselves with recycling and rehearsing the mantras of the day – whether those mantras are taken from some inept consultant’s report, the editorial of the Financial Review, or the opinions and  prejudices fostered by their social circle. They draw their interpretations of the world from a common stock of ideas that requires little searching for truth and little investigation of deeper questions. These ideas find their confirmation quickly, and reflect the governing consensus of their patrons and the powerful kingpins who guide the networks to which they belong. These bureaucrats are the conformists and lackeys of those zombie ideas that so dominate our governments, especially after the degradation of public intellectual culture over the last 30 years. They are the managers who cannot find a better argument in favour of the changes they propose than that change is always happening and you can’t fight change. Ironically, they cannot see that the same change undermines their calls to reform the world in the static image of their own utopias and interests.
But there are some other bureaucrats, perhaps a small but significant minority, who are less like squawkish parrots with their imitative cries, and more like the eye of Stevens’ blackbird, restlessly searching a vast immoveable world of snowy mountains for a clue to the unfolding of this world. This kind of bureaucrat seeks out contrary opinions and conflicting information. This kind of bureaucrat regularly scans the best academic journals of their field to find an idea that is better than their own. This kind of bureaucrat speaks after a meeting to the quiet voices in the room, and looks carefully and meticulously at the surprising data, that does not fit neatly the line graphs of progress or decline. When this kind of bureaucrat is challenged by their Minister to find some kind of model of cultural change – “someone must have one, surely?” – they will look outside management journals, and read deeply in anthropology, biological sciences, behavioural psychology and history before realising that we are posing again the enigmas of Heraclitus, but with no patience for oracles. Such a bureaucrat will pose to themselves everyday fundamental questions that try to make deeper sense of the social patterns they observe in their reading and in the social and cultural worlds around them.
I know such bureaucrats exist; because I have been one. It is true we are a small, and likely dwindling minority. Yet are not all of our most precious cultural heritages the same scarce, endangered species? To preserve this tradition is essential if our societies are to be governed well, and our great intellectual traditions are to be conserved against degradation by the chic and stupid mantras of people on the make. It is given to a few perhaps to be the seers: to observe the things that others cannot see, and then to find the words to communicate them so that the great ship can keep sailing on. Those seers are rarely the grand mandarins who control large organisations. They do not receive the medals and the gongs. Their photoshopped faces do not appear on the Mandarin news site. Nor are they the self-confident consultocrats who trade up their reputations with the latest fashionable nonsense. They suffer the exile of all prophets, and are often found wandering wounded, lame, even blinded in the organisations who neither like nor support them. They do not even promise utopia and transformation. The long vigil has taught them of the limitations of the human animal. But if we see them, if we find a way of truly looking at this kind of bureaucrat, if we hear what they have learned through their long years of vigilance, then perhaps we can save our bureaucracies from the depredations of management that mistakes ambition for thought.