In Praise of Federal Bureaucrats

When I was twenty-eight I owned four dark suits and one light. I kept an extra pair of white shirts in my office because Washington summers were muggy, and you wanted to look crisp if you were called to an important meeting. In the morning, after I was woken up by the thud of cannon fire at nearby Fort Meyers, I’d walk a few blocks to the always crowded Metro, and ride seven stops to my job in a big federal building with brutalist architecture.

An enterprising Cambodian woman with a coffee cart outside the main entrance to the Department of Energy, rapidly poured steaming lattes and all-blacks to the hundreds streaming to their jobs. Once in the lobby, we’d wave our badges at the phalanx of federal police guarding the entrance.

We jammed into the elevators, then the crowd thinned out riding to the top floor. Exhilaration of a new day would thrill, as our leather shoes clicked down the long, white linoleum hallways to our desks.

By the time I got to work at eight in the morning, the building was buzzing with colonels and commanders, usually there since four. The military side was always busy, and seemed frustrated that civilians worked four hours later than them.

Click-clacking down the linoleum, I’d pass ones and twos of jacket-less men, clad in short-sleeved, white button-down shirts with pocket protectors carrying three-ring binders filled with tabs. Just as many women moved through the halls, carrying binders of their own and color-coded manila folders, with long skirts and far-from-couture blouses in muted colors.

The action began as soon as I turned on my computer. Hours of email from always the awake military side, and strings of conversation from the West Coast civilians. Debates about rules, policies and science. A young man appointed to my job by politicians, I was outclassed by the permanent workers surrounding me. Dozens of best-in their field engineers, Ph.D. economists and a smattering of scientists who’d only a few months ago been smashing protons together.

Every day was a struggle to read more, learn more and keep up with the dialogue. Women and men would rattle off esoteric and obscenely detailed knowledge of science, economic models written in Excel and the health impacts on projected tens of thousands of people. Careful! Because just a change in one phrase of a rule could impact a hundred thousand Americans. It was often repeated: You had to get things right, because in federal policy-making, you didn’t get a second chance any time soon.

Riding down the elevator, stopping in program offices, you’d encounter phalanxes of balding men and widening women, who signed up for their jobs decades ago, planning to become experts in their fields. Now, they were The Person who knew all the things. It might be about radioactive waste glassification, solar panels, carbon valuation, diesel particulates, climate change negotiation strategies or Saudi oil wells.

Working to solve a problem in government, or markets, you’d go looking for The Person, and when you found them, they’d be ensconced in a beige cubicle, walls covered by printed charts, kid art and maybe a certificate of Excellent Federal Service.

The Person would swivel in their chair, you’d ask your question, and then a geyser of knowledge would come out. Moments later, they’d produce three-ring binders of studies with charts, graphs and detailed narrative. It was too much. Your question was answered, but you had to find a way to cap the geyser, so much was the desire to pour out understanding. This was the Federal Government, and they had to make sure the policy was Done Right The First Time.

Everyone knew, after fifteen years or so, you could jump to the private sector and double your salary. But they stayed. Many until mandatory retirement, even a few who petitioned for and got exceptions to stay longer because they were The Person Who Knew Things, and didn’t want to leave until someone was trained up to replace them.

It stiffened my spine, being amongst so many earnest men and women. They talked about Serving The President with stone faces, and the word America was invoked often and never in jest. They were civil servants, many serving what they thought of as a call to work for our nation, even if most citizens would never understand what they do every day.

These are the people I think of when I hear about federal bureaucrats. We don’t laud them like soldiers or sailors, and they don’t face bullets or shells, yet today, their dedication and commitment to rules, policies and science maintains the line between rule of law and authoritarianism in our country.

I am grateful for their service.

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