Monday, March 15, 2010

In Praise of Bureaucrats

Some years ago, when I was about to start a novel, I asked Marianne, "Before I start writing, is there anything you'd like me to include in this book?"

"Yes," she said.  "I'd like to see a bureaucrat who was honest and efficient and doing a job that needed doing."

"Okay," I said, and that's where Stations of the Tide came from.

 Yesterday, Marianne (who, you'll remember, is the retired Director of the Division of Laboratory Improvement at the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Health Bureau of Laboratories)  had a visit from Stanley and Evelyn Reynolds.  Stan is the Director of the Division of Clinical Microbiology at the Bureau, so he and Marianne had a lot of shop talk to work through.

Listening to them . . .

But wait.  What is a bureaucrat?  Somebody who's paid to ensure that legislation is honestly applied.  Let's say that you pass a law that all lab tests be competently performed.  You could go with the libertarian model that if the lab sink-tests everything (i.e., dumps all specimens in the sink and reports results within the normal range, whatever that might be), eventually their surviving customers will give their business to somebody else.  (You've had blood or whatever drawn at your doctor's office, right?  Quick!  What's the name of the lab that processed it?)

Or you could presume that the government makes sure that the labs have a certain minimal level of competence.  And if you do, who actually ensures this?

Bureaucrats, that's who.

So Stanley and Marianne, the current and retired second-highest-ranking guys in the Bureau were talking about what's going on back in the Labs and guess what?  They were passionate!  They raised the roof.  They could not possibly have cared more about making Pennsylvania as safe as it can possibly be for people who might sometime in their life be sick.

Yeah, some bureaucrats are exactly as pointless as you think they are.  But there are a lot of 'em out there who are giving it their all to make the world a better place.

And I for one am grateful

And this week . . .

I'll be on the road this week, from Tuesday through Thursday.  I'll do my best to blog, but if I don't . . . well, it'll only be due to lack of access.

Be well.



Anonymous said...

Thank you, Michael. I was not aware of the sink test and the associated mode of reporting of results.
Already I am having a better week through knowing such an arcane and horrifying concept; and through knowing that there are honest bureaucrats who make certain such procedures are not the norm.

JJM said...

I daresay most gummint workers of any sort are doing their level best. It's the ones who come in at the top one wonders about sometimes. (Or often.) For the worker drones, the main problem is having to follow regulations even where regulations hamper getting the job done right.

David Stone said...

In my experience most bureaucrats are pretty hardworking and efficient. But it only takes one bad one to clog up a pipeline. I'd say the key to any good system (besides good regulations) is being able to get rid of the clogs. In the US federal government, it seems this does not happen easily.

JJM said...

Thing about the U.S. Federal Government is that there are safeguards in place to prevent government workers from losing their jobs due to politics as opposed to incompetence or malfeasance. But that, unfortunately for the public, can mean some clogs stick around, although wise supervisors know how to manage lateral moves.

It's somewhat analogous to getting tenure.

jon Shestack said...

Hi Unka Mike,
Jon Shestack in Los Angeles here. Yay I sez. Bureaucrats, much maligned and little understood.
The best bureaucrats are imbued with a sense of service. They were each the smartest girl or boy in the class. The Eagle scout, the candy striprer, the host family for a foreign exchange student.

Like people who work in any big endeavor, some people can be lazy or get petty and mean and hide behind layers of protocol and regulation. But since the government is the largest biggest employer we have, chances are you all know and love a bureaucrat. Tell them they are appreciated and gice em a big ole kiss.

Michael Swanwick said...

I'll do that, Jon. To one particular (retired) bureaucrat, anyway.