It’s popular to bash bureaucrats, whether they work at the municipal, provincial or federal levels of government.
God knows I’ve done my fair share of it.
But the truth is we need the paper-pushers to make government work. Without them, everything would ground to a halt.
The trick is to find bureaucrats who will tell their political masters things they don’t want to hear. But, at the same time, they must be willing to do what they’re told once a decision has been made.
Looking back at the administrators I have seen in action over the decades there are a number who were, in fact, outstanding.
My favourite was Joe Pace, the late education director for the old Lambton County Roman Catholic Separate School Board.
Pace was a passionate man who worked tirelessly to improve local schools.
He realized the importance of publicity -- and of keeping ratepayers in the loop. He allowed reporters to sit in on secret meetings (which politicians like to call ‘in-camera’ sessions). The only stipulation was that nothing could be reported from those meetings unless the chairperson of the board and the director gave the OK.
It was a good system that showed respect for the media (and by extension the public). By sitting in on such meetings reporters understood why some things were being kept quiet. If they didn’t agree with a decision to keep something under wraps they could appeal it to the chairperson and the director. Either way, they knew exactly what was going on and why things were being done.
I well remember an occasion in which a trustee called for restrictions on the media. He demanded they get permission from parents before taking photos or writing stories about activities in local schools. Pace talked the board out of adopting this block-headed idea. He knew local media did not have the time to jump through a lot of hoops for something as simple as taking a picture of kindergarten kids participating in a painting lesson, or youngsters playing basketball on the yard. If there were too many restrictions placed on reporting Pace knew journalists would not bother to show up at his schools.
Pace was proud of his teachers, students and schools. He knew a great deal of impressive work was being done and he wanted the public to know about it. He realized informed ratepayers would be more likely to support the education system than those kept in the dark.
His equivalent at the public school board was undoubtedly Allen Wells, the brilliant education director respected by teachers, other staff members and the public.
There were a number of good bureaucrats at the municipal level too. One of my favourites was Dave DeShane, who was director of parks and recreation in Sarnia back in the 1970s.
Mayor Marceil Saddy once commented that DeShane was “refreshingly unafraid of council” and that was true. He fought hard for his department and the politicians respected him for it.
There were many others, of course, including some great city managers, treasurers and planners.
Needless to say, you can’t let the bureaucrats run the show by themselves. The politicians are the ones who have to answer to the public and, in the final analysis, they are the ones who must make the tough decisions. But it’s a lot easier for them to do so if they have the information and support they need from competent staff members.