In defence of bureaucrats

The public often maligns bureaucrats. They are said to be obsessed with procedure, dull, lazy, erecting barriers to innovation, even corrupt. When it became clear that the conservative Coalition would win government in Australia, Rupert Murdoch put the boot in with this Tweet, “Aust election public sick of public sector workers and phony welfare scroungers sucking life out of economy.”

Literature is also replete with bureaucrat bashing, often very amusing. In Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Arthur Dent seeks to find out why his house is set for demolition that day without his prior knowledge. He encounters Mr L Prosser, who is “40, flabby and fat and works for the local council”. Prosser insists that the demolition plans had been available in the local planning office for the last nine months. Prosser is unrepentant when Arthur points out that they were “on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard”.

In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry and co encounter the officious and smug Percy Weasley from the Department of International Magical Cooperation who must finish a report to standardize cauldron thickness.

Bureaucrats are the people we love to complain about. Mostly the complaints go unchallenged. The bureaucrat cannot phone the local radio station or write to a local paper to defend their work nor the complexities they deal with behind the scenes. Their jobs usually require them to maintain a dignified silence. 

While most of us will feel the impact when bureaucracy functions poorly, we are usually blissfully ignorant of the benefits when it functions well – even just reasonably well.

Refreshingly, this week Croakey published an article by Professor Tarun Weeramanthri who heads up the Public Health and Clinical Services Division in the Department of Health in Western Australia. Professor Weeramanthri talks about the backroom staff who perform important duties, from laboratory staff right through to those who work on legislation and finance.

When we go to hospital or a GP clinic, a doctor, nurse, midwife or allied health professional will care for us, help birth our babies, dress our wounds, pin and plate our bones, help our rehabilitation. We see and feel their cures and well up with gratitude at their competence and care.

But consider the absence of illness enjoyed because of people in the backroom.

  • The middle-aged adults who don’t get cancer, heart disease or emphysema in 2050 because a bureaucrat implemented an effective policy to reduce youth smoking now.
  • The women who are, or will be, free of pre-cancerous cervical lesions because a team of bureaucrats successfully coordinated the delivery of an HPV vaccination program in their schools when they were adolescents.
  • The children and adults who avoid dentist visits for fillings and extractions because a bureaucrat negotiated with a hesitant council to agree to fluoridate their drinking water supply.

The bureaucrat mostly does these things silently and without fanfare. Being a bureaucrat doesn’t have much dash about it. It’s about serving the public usually in banal, ordinary and unseen ways. But the work is important for a healthy and well functioning society and even if bureaucrats can’t defend themselves, those of us who get a glimpse of their work occasionally will.



  1. Very true. To imagine that contemporary health care can occur without managerial support is delusional. I would add to the positive health outcomes mentioned to which Sir Humphrey and co can make a direct claim, I would add health system maintenance including financial and human resource management and ALL infrastructure support.

    Steve Leeder

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