Biographers of Theodore Roosevelt frequently tell a story about his earnest impulsiveness. It almost always raises a smile of satisfaction among readers and listeners. As biographer Edmund Morris tells it, when in the 1890s TR headed the powerful police board of New York City, he heard about a civil servant who was behaving in a less than civil way, making people wait while he sat with his feet up on his desk and his hat pushed back on his head. Enraged, Roosevelt tore down to the office, knocked the man’s hat off, ordered him to take his feet off his desk, and demanded to know who he thought he was to treat citizens in such a rude and condescending way. He then told the man that he might as well get in the “relief” line, because he had just lost his job with the city.
It is always gratifying to hear of arrogance and bullying come to an abrupt fall, to read of those who see themselves as superior and invulnerable suddenly join the people who they had previously abused. In settings where the story is shared, someone always tells of a humiliating and infuriating encounter with some official, either of a company or a government office. But in these more recent recollections there is never a Theodore Roosevelt to turn the tables. There is instead a residue of sour feeling and an abiding frustration that such arrogance too frequently goes unpunished or even unremarked by higher ups.
With a private company, there is always the hope that competitive pressures will discipline offenders. It does not always happen, but the expectation is that management will step in to prevent poor service from driving customers to the competition. In the absence of such a management awakening, there is also the darker hope that poor service, if left unchecked, will drive away so many customers that the company either goes out of business or is taken over by a more successful firm, one that is more attuned to the public’s wants and needs. At least these are the hopes with offending companies.
With government, matters are more complex. Without competitors, there is no room for these sorts of disciplines. There is in its place only the hope that time-honored cultures of courtesy and concern will continue to prevail. In TR’s day, there was a sort of additional governor on behavior. Because even low level officials then were appointed by elected politicians, those at the top worried about a reaction at the polls if their appointees treated people poorly. Even that source of restraint is gone now. The civil service is separate from the elected part of government and further insulated by its unions. A latter day TR would not dare knock off hats. He or she would not have to either. Because the public is well aware of the separation between the civil service and elected officials, it hardly holds politicians accountable. For many other reasons, it is probably best that such separations exist, but it does leave the public bereft of any means to correct bureaucratic misbehavior. Civil servants must, in fact, feel close to invulnerable. Though many of them still exemplify a welcome culture of service, too many, sadly, succumb to this sense of insulation and embrace a culture of self-entitlement and in some cases outright arrogance.
One can certainly see such attitudes in the scandalous behavior at the Veterans Administration (VA). There, bureaucrats felt privileged to put their prerogatives, even their convenience, over the lives and health of citizens who depended on them and, in what may be a more telling sign, believed they could get away with hiding their negligence. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) also shows clear signs of having abandoned a culture of service. In this regard, it is less a matter of whether alleged biases were present in its decision making than how the IRS has behaved subsequently in response to otherwise reasonable concerns about its behavior. It has, in fact, as much as told Congress that neither it nor the public have a right to question its behavior. There are many other examples, too, outside the headlines. Just about any citizen can recount high-handed behavior from government officials.
It would be more than just pleasant for citizens to see civil servants return to a more courteous, concerned approach. It might also serve the larger aims of government. A more attentive civil service could dissipate a public hostility to government that has grown large enough in recent years to impede the implementation of otherwise worthwhile government programs. A president, a governor, a county executive might find a worthy agenda in promoting concern for the public among the civil service. Disciplining bureaucratic arrogance may look like small ball next to trophy legislation, but it might actually pay bigger dividends by sweetening the nation’s currently sour political milieu and so permitting more effective, active government. The citizens of this country would certainly appreciate the effort.