The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
Wallace Stevens, 13 ways of looking at a blackbird, stanza III
Imagine yourself at a crowded and vexed public meeting. A few hundred ordinary people, that legendary topos, have gathered to discuss an issue that is causing concern in the community. It could be any one of the myriad of issues governments must decide in a fog of conflicting opinions, where complex layers of political, institutional, legal, professional, interest group and moral decision-making grind up against the life-worlds of these ordinary people. It might be about the siting of a new prison, or a proposal to redesign an important local medical service, or a provincial government’s plans to extend a train network in a way that damages some residents’ amenity. It might even be about more elevated topics – the directions of a country’s foreign policy, ways to promote new industries or anaesthetise dying businesses, how to protect people against violence, or ways to promote social cohesion in a world of disarray. The issue does not matter: let us focus on the roles of the actors on stage.
There will be a spokesperson for the government, under whose authority proceedings are convened. It may be the Minister. It may be a Minister’s trusted adviser. It may be a proxy in the form of an eminent person, a representative of the community, the chair of a review panel. Whoever they may be, they are the focus of the attention, and they are the person for whom the performances of this pantomime (to echo Stevens poem ironically, since this theatre is far from comic, far from pantomime) are made. There will be the protestors, armed with placards, t-shirts and slogans. There will be a few quietly intrusive representatives of the private interests which are most disturbed by any decision on the issue. These sleek fellows will usually be dressed in suits (if not ties, since they appear to be going out with the dodo at such events) and seated towards the front. They will speak in calm and insinuating terms, suggestive of an unwanted intimacy with decision-makers, and present themselves as a reasoned contrast to the abusive, angry protestors. There may be one or two academic experts, some of whom will have sided with one or other of the disputants. They may even have been invited to speak as an expert to help inform the audience, in a rite of evidence-based policy.
In the shadows and the wings, there will be a few bureaucrats. They may not say much. Then again, they might say a lot. They may be put on the spot by the outraged community activist, who is exasperated with decisions made without us, and challenged to find the best methods to defuse and deflect anger. They may be asked questions by lawyers with attitude, which these advocates know they cannot answer without embarrassing their Minister. Then again, they may perform a part with calm assurance: quickly bringing a long and convoluted question to the nub of an issue; concisely summarising the key points of debate; displaying a virtuoso command of the statistical and scholarly information that can help guide a war of passions. Their assurance may be completely silent, like a playwright gently nodding approval of a troupe’s fine realisation of his script.
However well or poorly performed, this is the whirl in the autumn winds. The flight of the bureaucrat in this flurry can only be made with craft. Craft is the enemy of management and tactless innovation. But craft is the ally of those who seek to govern well. We will know the ordinary virtues of governing well only through the craft skills of the bureaucrat. We will applaud the fine performance – even if we do not realise – not only because of the striking poses of the leading men and women, but in response to the subtle tissues sewn by the acting craft of the scarcely known cameo artists whose careers are made in shadows.
Image source: Van Gogh, Wheatfields via Harper’s Magazine