As one of my friends is fond of saying, one man’s perversion is another man’s great night (and woman’s, one might add). The same can be said about politics – it all depends where you stand. A lot has been said and written over the past three years about the interaction between government and public service; we’ve had the dueling narratives of “collusion” (and now “quid pro quo”) versus “the Deep State”, “the resistance” versus “the coup”, “whistle blowers” versus “conspirators”. The whole saga seems very murky and confusing to an average person: is there a plot and so by whom? who are the good guys? is bureaucracy the fourth branch of government? are public servants public masters? If, on the other hand, you’ve ever worked in government, particularly as a right-winger, all this is eerily familiar and unremarkable. One man’s conspiracy theory is another man’s average day at work.
So what’s the deal and why do we find ourselves in a never ending story of investigations and impeachments?
Public servants consider themselves more intelligent and expert in their areas of competence than politicians. In many cases they are right. This only adds to the frustration. Because it’s not the job of public servants to make policy but to give advice to elected officials and to implement their decisions. And it certainly is not their job, if elected officials choose not to accept and act on that advice, to sabotage their efforts or even try to engineer the downfall of their political masters.
If you are a public servants who disagrees with the direction the politicians are taking, you have a simple, binary choice: you can clench your teeth, stay in your job and implement the politicians’ will or you can resign – at which stage you have every right as a concerned citizen to publicly campaign against people and policies you disagree with. There are more legitimate avenues of dissent and opposition outside than inside the system.
The ideal of the public service is a completely apolitical and impartial workforce, which faithfully assists government of the day in implementing its agenda, whatever that agenda might be. The reality is that while many bureaucrats are able to separate their personal beliefs from their professional duty, some can’t and won’t. For the reasons that are both obvious and unnecessary to go into detail here, public sector attracts those on the left, the way private sector attracts those on the right. Thus, left wing governments rarely encounter the problem of bureaucratic dissent, unless they really act out of the traditional left-wing box. The right wing governments, by contrast, face at best dutiful but unenthusiastic and sullen cooperation. There are no vast and organised conspiracies; this is a systemic phenomenon where organisations are required to do things that go against the conventional institutional wisdom and against the individual beliefs of the majority of members who shape the informal internal culture. This is the Shallow State. Bureaucracy will always cheer on the expansion of its numbers and powers and shriek at the prospect of shrinking the state. It will embrace and run with the policies it approves and stumble with the policies it doesn’t.
Forgetting the rank and file of the public service, which is unmovable and unchangeable, the reason why new governments enjoy the power of key appointments, including diplomatic ones, is not simply the patronage of rewarding supporters and the faithful but more importantly ensuring that the key administrative positions in bureaucracy are occupied by people who share their vision and can therefore be counted on to enthusiastically pursue the government’s agenda within the particular organisation. This, of course, only kicks the basic problem down the line, in that the top government appointees then have to struggle with the “permanent” employees on the levels below. The lower ranks might still succeed in frustrating their superiors, or worse, in “capturing” the political appointees by converting them to the institutional consensus. But for the government, having its own people in top positions is better than having no support at all. In an ideal world, of course, none of this would be necessary and happening because the impartial public service would be working well with whoever is in power. This is not an ideal world; certainly not for right wing governments. The Shallow State is always the reality. The Deep State is nothing more and nothing less than the Shallow State going well beyond the usual sullen uncooperativeness and taking a particularly strong stance against the government they disagree with. It’s a difference between passive resistance and active resistance.
It is not the job of bureaucracy to resist the government. Hence the current vogue for insubordination and sabotage is necessitating a rather radical redefinition of public service. Recently, we seem to have finally crossed the threshold from years of obfuscation (“The Deep State is a right wing conspiracy theory”) to acknowledging the reality (“The Deep State are patriots trying to protect America and the American people from the president”). But for all the talk about the supposed collusion, treason, crimes and corruption of the Trump administration, which could thus justify the resistance, the only thing that the endless agitation and investigation has succeeded in showing over the past three years is policy differences. Quite simply, the public service is vehemently opposed to the president’s views on a whole range of matters, and they are outraged that he has not followed their conventional wisdom.
And they can be, but ultimately – and whether they are right or wrong – their options as public servants are to shut up and do their job or, if conscience doesn’t allow it anymore, resign. We, the people (including public servants), elect our politicians. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don’t. Elections have consequences. It is not the job of public servants to try to save us from the consequences of our own electoral decisions. Democracy is a social contract between the citizens and their elected representatives. All too often now, public servants think that the citizens are mentally incapable of entering into that social contract and the bureaucracy needs to stand in for them as legal guardians to protect their interests, as identified by the bureaucracy.
And they’re not doing us any favours either. For all of the former US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanowitch’s protestations about repeatedly uprooting one’s life and hardship posts, ambassadors in particular but all diplomatic staff in general have great lives courtesy of the taxpayer. In my experience in foreign affairs of dealing with foreign affairs professionals they love the lifestyle of working in different countries throughout their careers and no one sees it as a sacrifice, otherwise they would not be working in diplomacy. Ditto for the more earth-bound domestic bureaucrats; it’s not for nothing that the postcodes around Washington DC and Canberra are the wealthiest in their respective countries. Working for government might not make you filthy rich (though sometimes it seems to, mysteriously), but it keeps a lot of people living quite comfortably indeed, mostly without the sort of pressures that accompany a comparable private sector career. This is not the politics of envy, even if taxpayers have a legitimate interest in how their hard-earned money is being doled out among the bureaucrats, but merely pointing out that in this 21st century Downton Abbey, it’s the servants who are in charge of the house and the owners work in the basement. There are strong parallels between the semi-feudal noblesse oblige in the past and the self-serving image and patronising attitudes of today’s technocrats towards the peasants.
Over the 16 years in politics I’ve dealt with multitudes of bureaucrats and diplomats. Most have been professional and capable, but judging by many a conversation I’ve had with colleagues I have been exceptionally lucky in my interactions. I also have little doubt that most of the bureaucrats and diplomats I’ve come across would have preferred if I had been on the left instead. The mainstream media and politicians on the left might be – publicly – aghast at the idea of the Deep State but it’s nothing particularly outlandish for anyone who has actually ever worked in government. The Shallow State is an everyday reality for those from outside the media/bureaucracy/education/culture left-wing complex. The Deep State is just a game for higher stakes.