At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.
Wallace Stevens, 13 Ways of looking at a blackbird
It is not often that the average educated reasonable person catches a glimpse of bureaucrats in flight, out in the open, for all to see, their black wings starkly beautiful in a soft green light. They are told it is not their job to take the limelight. They should keep away from public stages, television lights, and open-ended discussions with media identities. Most are harshly disciplined for talking out of school, even for making critical comments on the upper hierarchy of their organisations on facebook. Free speech – even perhaps all elements of freedom of thought, conscience and religion as defined by the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights
– is something bureaucrats routinely, in my experience (yes, limited to a tolerant democracy of moderate quality), defend for others, while not enjoying themselves
A great cone of silence – that evergreen metaphor of broken, mundane conspiracies created by Mel Brooks in Get Smart – and a more effective invisibility cloak screen out bureaucrats from the great conversations on matters of public importance that shape the moral lives of our distressed republics. Those republics suffer for it. They suffer through a lowering of standards of public speech and political thought. They suffer through the gradual humiliation and disordering of the great public institutions of bureaucracy, which are at their strongest when they enjoy a strong, open and accountable relationship with the people they serve. That relationship should not be funnelled through the cell phone of a whiz-kid political adviser and the mindless demands of the 24 hour political media machine. They suffer from the diminishing of the pool of knowledge shared to solve our many common problems of coordination. They suffer through the loss to the public stage of some of the best informed, articulate and compassionate minds. In their place we get panel shows of partisan left/right think-tankers, meretricious lobbyists and journalists endlessly talking to journalists about what journalists think of the issues of the day. Truly, the bawds of cacophony.
Could it be another way? I recall several years ago a serious current affairs television announced that it would interview the head of the department responsible for child protection and family services, then called, with no conscious irony, the Department of Human Services. The department had been heavily criticised on many matters. The still quite new Government, then within the first weeks or months of its office, had even made something of a major election issue of the failings of this department and promised a major and fundamental inquiry, quite an unusual reordering political priorities. The head of the department was also not some mere courtier, but had worked on the front lines of child protection for most of her career. She held a deep knowledge of the dilemmas, and had some real polish in speaking clearly to many audiences about how things ought to improve. Moreover, it was she who had been responsible directly and personally for many of the failures and many of the successes in child protection over maybe 20 years. It was right that she should face the tough questions, not some Minister newly briefed and with only a helicopter view of the problems. Surely, she is the best person to ask, on principle because of both her knowledge and accountability.
But when it came time for the interview to air, the capable, polished and assertive Minister appeared in the studio and live to air. The first question of her was why would you not let your most senior bureaucrat speak directly to the program? The Minister’s response was that I am the elected official and the Minister responsible, and it is appropriate that I represent the Government’s views to the public. This is the Westminster system, but more it is a narrow code of operations enforced with rigid, thoughtless discipline entrenched by political and media advisory staff over the last thirty years.
It is not that the Minister was not capable and within her rights to speak on behalf of the Government. But was she really within her rights to silence her most senior official, and to prevent any form of direct relationship between the leaders of bureaucratic institutions and the public they serve? The Minister, after all, would have many more opportunities to speak to the media. The provincial government I serve releases five or more media releases every day. But they are the cheap and bowlderised verse of the bawds of euphony. It is surely time to silence their cries, sit back and observe the blackbird in flight in these strange and rare lights.