Government Employee or Bureaucrat

I am almost always irked at the response I get when I tell people that I work in Government.  Usually it is something along the lines of “Oh, you’re a bureaucrat.”  It irritates me when I hear that comment, so I usually say that I’m not a bureaucrat, “I am a government employee.”  Or sometimes I say that I am a “public employee.”

Recently, I was pondering why the term bureaucrat bothers me so much.   I think it’s because the connotations are so awful.  When I hear the word bureaucrat, I think of corrupt government officials or 1984-ish, anonymous drones working in some dingy warehouse of a government building.  It’s the same reason I don’t like the term “public servant.” Apparently I am not the only one who feels this way, because I found many blogs and articles discussing similar issues. (Try an internet search for “connotation bureaucrat, and you’ll see what I mean.)

The American Heritage Dictionary defines bureaucrat as:

  1. An official of a bureaucracy.
  2. An official who is rigidly devoted to the details of administrative procedure.

Government employees do follow procedure, so that’s not inaccurate or particularly distasteful.  The term rigid is maybe a little bit stronger than I would use, but at the same time, it is still fairly accurate.  Part of the purpose of a bureaucracy is the adherence to administrative procedure and the fact that things in government don’t change at the drop of a hat.

Dictionary.com gives the following definitions for the term bureaucrat:

  1. an official of a bureaucracy.
  2. an official who works by fixed routine without exercising intelligent judgment.

The “without exercising intelligent judgement” part of bureaucrat is the part that rankles me so.  Unfortunately, a lot of people that I meet feel this way about government employees.  I’m not going to say that there aren’t government employees who just show up for the paycheck, but I firmly believe that those employees are the exception rather than the rule.  Hey, I have a pretty good head on my shoulders, I work hard, and I have the constituent letters of thanks to prove it!

I like Roger Shuy’s analysis about the word bureaucrat:

Several words in the English language rise to the level of making us mad and bureaucrat seems to be one of them. When our tax filing gets challenged, we blame those nasty bureaucrats at IRS. When we’re bogged down with pages of needless forms to fill out, it’s the fault of those anonymous servants of the government who are the problem. When a statute is incomprehensible, it’s the bureaucrat’s fault, even though we might better place the blame on the legislators who wrote it in the first place.

from Language Log

The next time someone asks me if I’m a bureaucrat, I’ll have to think on it for a moment.  I’ll probably continue to answer with my standard “government employee” response, but I might just start a discussion about what it means to be a good bureaucrat.

Eva Stern is a Geographic Information Systems analyst and trainer for the District of Columbia. Ms. Stern manages the GIS training program for the Office of the Chief Technology Officer, and relishes her role in the bureaucracy.  You can find her Twittering (unofficially, of course) @EvaStern

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One thought on “Government Employee or Bureaucrat

  1. When people ask what I do, I tell them I’m a bureaucrat; partly for shock value but also because bureaucracy is a good thing. Bureaucracy is how the ordinary efforts of ordinary people are organized to accomplish extraordinary things. No other means of organization has proven adequate for winnning wars, building public works, or accomplishing other large-scale projects.

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