Inner City Diary
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Community leaders blaming more than leading...
November 2, 2003
This week I had enough. I was at another community meeting where certain bureaucrats were slammed for just doing their job. I’m not normally a defender of bureaucracy, but I knew the criticism was unfair.

Funding was offered to address the problem of homelessness. Bureaucrats ended up evaluating proposals and recommending approvals to politicians. No matter what their decision, request or delay, someone was unhappy. It really was a “no-win” situation. Disgruntled organizations consistently back-stabbed the bureaucratic workers to their political and bureaucratic bosses.

It’s ironic, however, that the community had no one to blame but themselves. Government anticipated the griping and offered a decision-making advisory role to a group of community leaders.

The community leaders chickened out. They didn't want to take the inevitable flak for tough but necessary decisions. Nobody wanted to be the “bad guy” or hold each other accountable. “I’m sorry, but that’s a really unrealistic proposal for where you’re at.” “I’m sorry, but there’s a better and cheaper proposal to do more for less money.” They not only surrendered a great opportunity, but they actually abdicated their responsibility to the community.

For the next three years, bureaucrats were abused for doing a job they offered to community leaders. Without their hard work, millions of dollars in community improvements would have missed Winnipeg. I figure thanks and respect are in order.

But instead of thanks, there is continued backstabbing.

People in our neighbourhood often complain about the 'system.'

Often, we don't know exactly where to direct our anger or suggestions for improvement so we just complain about “government.”

Government consists of politicians and bureaucrats. Politicians get elected to fulfill their campaign promises. Bureaucrats are hired to serve the public interest and the stated intent of politicians.

Politicians have a normal shelf life of about 4 years. If they're good enough or slick enough, they may last longer.

Bureaucrats almost always outlast politicians. Insulated from the public by voice mail, unions, occasionally relocating offices and constantly changing titles, they're the ones who actually keep the world turning.

As long as they don't tick off the current politicians, they will likely keep their jobs. But they also try not to attract the ire of the public. Bad press for their political bosses would lead to reassignment or dismissal. Bureaucrats, by necessity, are a cautious breed.

If they survive the politicians and don't become the focal point of some public outcry, they can retire with a decent pension. Some become jaded. Some have traded the public interest for their personal job security.

I must confess, there were times I think I hated them all. They were all part of some monstrous yet faceless “system” that didn't care about people. I saw my job as one of confronting the system, embarrassing and harassing them into actually getting into the neighbourhood and helping people.

Over the years, however, I got to know some of these folks. And I couldn't pretend they were unfeeling, uncaring monsters anymore.

Don't get me wrong. I haven't “sold out.” I'm not sucking up to anyone. I'll speak out when I see something wrong. There are things about the bureaucracy that still disgust me.

Here's one from last week's headlines. The thought that a public servant - paid with our tax dollars - gets more vacation pay than most people's annual salary in this neighbourhood, is gross. I'm not sure that any public servant should be personally paid a million dollars over three years to reduce waste in health care. If that was me, I couldn't look in the mirror every morning and reconcile my mandate with my paycheque.

But I have met many other bureaucrats who have my gratitude and respect. We’ve laughed and cried, fought and learned together. We’ve walked and worked together in the neighbourhood. And I have felt shame for some of my arrogance and unfair judgments.

There are some bureaucrats that really care. Some maintain their passion for people in the midst of changing politicians, rotating bosses and mountains of paperwork.

Sometimes it’s us in the community that make it harder for them. Angry residents and community workers cause some bureaucrats to walk into our neighbourhoods as if walking barefoot on broken glass. Afraid of being criticized for just doing their jobs. Afraid of complaints being lodged with their bureaucratic or political bosses.

When “the system” doesn’t do its job, I’ll continue to poke and prod. When “the community” doesn’t do its job, we better learn to put up or shut up.
Copyright 2003
Rev. Harry Lehotsky
Rev. Harry Lehotsky is Director of New Life Ministries, a community ministry in the inner-city of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
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