Friday, April 06, 2007

Dalrymple article

Theodore Dalrymple is another one of my favorite writers. He's like Mark Steyn - never writes an article without at least ONE phrase you want to write down and remember for the future. But as he's English, he's not quite as light-hearted as Steyn, living as he is in a country that is even further down the death spiral than ours.

This latest article struck me as both depressing and stimulating. I got the feeling that he'd finally adjusted a lens I'd been squinting through for years, and brought a shape into focus. He's tracing the decay of virtue in the British civil service, and by extension, all of British society. I feel strongly about this, because the Canadian civil service was very consciously modelled on the British one, and up until recently was actually quite good. Up until about 15 or 20 years ago, pride in our civil service was a peculiarly Canadian thing. Politicians...well, you can always expect to find some bad eggs among them, it just goes with the territory. Politics is like acting - weak characters tend to gravitate to it as a profession. But the people in our government departments were for the most part good people, like us, doing a job that was probably a little dull, but doing it conscientiously and honestly. And we got that from the British, in a time when replicating the best of Britain was something we did deliberately.

We've slipped from that high quality, but we're not yet as badly off as the British. But Dalrymple is writing about more than just the civil service - he's writing about the decay and corruption of the intelligentsia, and at the moment that's more visible in other fields - academia, media, and (naturally) the church - which presently display more of the symptoms he describes. Doesn't this sound familiar?
Anyone who has had dealings with the British public service in the last ten or fifteen years will know that the principle qualities required for advancement within it are unceasing sanctimony, brazenness, a craven dedication to orders from on high combined with an ability to justify a complete change of direction at a moment's notice, and a capacity for bullying those lower down the feeding chain, or (to change the metaphor slightly) those jostling for a place at the trough. A rigid self-control is required to suppress any independence of mind or a tendency to consider the ethics of orders to be implemented....

I recently met a public servant who had risen up the ranks and had about him a triumphalist air, as of a successful revolutionary. He had arrived in bureaucratic heaven. He travelled to London on the train first class every week (a ticket costs the equivalent of an annual working class holiday in the sun), and attended sumptuous functions there attended by others such as himself, under the impression that by so doing he was working. Had he been a little boy recounting a visit to Father Christmas in a department store, it would have been disarming: as it was, I found it profoundly alarming.

Here was the voice of militant mediocrity, who expressed himself even in private in the language of Health Service meetings, believing that his large salary and high living at public expense were all for the good of those who paid for them.
Is there anyone who doesn't recognize the Eloi type described here? Always giving opinions to the media, from universities, special-interest groups, the cathedrals? And the good people, who still exist, "have become a defeated class", of no importance, who don't even have to be treated politely anymore.


Anonymous Mr. Falstaff said...

Good Dr.

I am one of the middle managers in the Canadian public service and I try my best to fight against this creeping sense of entitlement; the RCMP pension fund managers being a case in point. From my job, I hope that I can instill in the new employees a sense that "my budget" is really taxpayer's dollars and that "my program" is only there because it makes our country a better place to live.

As a member of the internal audit profession, I have some small influence on the way the bureaucracy is managed. I have seen a large number of rank and file employees who care deeply about serving their fellow countrymen with pride. I have also found cases of fraud. Overall, there are more good ones than bad, but I, too, sometimes feel that I already have all my fingers in the dyke.

Because my position can have great influence, I find myself in daily prayer that I use the power of my office to the greater glory of the Lord and the country in which I live. I have met other auditors who engage in schadenfreude-like behaviour, which demeans the auditee and the audit process, something that should lead to better management and working environment for employees and better service to Canadians and sojourners.

I have also met managers like the one described in the article. They do eventually crash and burn, but always with severe repercussions for the reputation of the public service.

As a wiser head once told me: I work for the taxpayers and to protect the reputation of my department; ministers come and go - it's their job to take the political heat. It's our job to give them the best advice possible.

As an example, in the HRDC boondoggle, at the beginning a former superior suggested at one of the first strategy meetings that they just say "Sorry, we screwed up. And here's what we're doing to fix it." He was ignored, and Jane Stewart is out of politics, which is a bit of a shame because she was mostly competent.

I ask that the readers keep the public services of their countries in their prayers, so that faithful stewards with servant hearts can be found and raised up as leaders of the local bureaucracy.

7:15 pm  
Blogger Ellie M said...

Fact: more people now attend mosques in Britain than go to Church of England services.

O Anglicans, behold what ye have wrought.

11:52 am  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

Mr. F - I very much appreciate the good work you do in the public service. You're the sort of person we valued in the public service when I was young, and so is Dean. People don't understand the modesty and decency that were a traditional part of the Canadian nature. We always used to think that the Americans would have the great heroes and superstars and billionaires, because it was somehow natural and fitting for their larger-than-life country. Canadians wouldn't do that; we were earnest, hardworking, scrupulously honest, and we would have the best civil service in the world. That was what we did - unglamourous, useful work, but done well and without fanfare or recognition. While our great neighbours have the high ideals of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, our goal was always Peace, Order and Good Government. It's an important difference - we almost seemed a little hobbity in comparison to the Big Folk down south.

11:11 pm  

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