The Consequences of Muzzling Professional Public-Sector Staff

By Dom Nozzi

I was a town planner in Gainesville, Florida for 20 years. About three-quarters of the way into those years, I published a book about suburban sprawl, traffic congestion, and quality of life. It was essentially a “lessons learned” book about the wisdom I had gained from my years as a professional planner for an American city. I started giving public presentations about the book to audiences throughout Florida and around the nation.

I was flattered by the many compliments and praise I tended to hear from those audiences. A few local elected officials noticed, and asked that I make the presentation to the local “Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization” (MTPO), a group made up of elected city and county commissioners making decisions about transportation and sprawl in my county.

But when I asked my supervisors at my city planning office for permission to give the presentation, I was informed that I would not be allowed to give a speech to the MTPO.

Apparently, my views were considered “too controversial.” Or “too politically incorrect.”

This was despite the fact that the views expressed in my book and speeches were entirely compatible with the adopted policies of the City of Gainesville.

One of my friends, an elected county commissioner who had suggested I give my presentation to the MTPO, asked if I was given an official explanation for being told I would not be allowed to give a speech to the MTPO.

I informed my friend that I was told some citizens at the MTPO meeting (or watching at home) would hear me make controversial comments, get angry, and not know whether I was speaking as a spokesperson representing the views of the City of Gainesville planner. At that time, as an aside, I was also prohibited by my supervisors from having my views published by the local newspaper because, I was told, even if I explicitly stated up front a disclaimer that the views I was expressing were mine alone and not necessarily those of the City of Gainesville (which was my standard practice in any event), citizens would still believe the opinions were those of the City.

In other words, my rights to free speech were being denied.

This sort of muzzling exemplified how the City of Gainesville was running scared. Professional staff are to be prohibited from making any citizen unhappy, or having any opinion about planning at all. Staff are especially not allowed to make sprawl developers and property owners (or Not-In-My-Backyard no-growthers) angry or upset.

Have you ever noticed how whenever a bureaucrat writes a report or speaks in public, they always sound so empty and boring? How they use nothing but puzzling, meaningless jargon? The situation I describe above about how my ability to communicate was so severely restricted provides a superb example of how, over time, bureaucrats are conditioned to never say anything meaningful at all. A bureaucrat is well-schooled in being able to talk for 30 minutes without actually saying anything. These are the origins of milquetoast bureaucrats.

An important consequence of this is that written words or speeches of a bureaucrat are completely watered down pabulum that are designed to be empty babble. The training of a bureaucrat is to only say or write things that will offend no one. The bureaucrat is punished if she or he says anything meaningful or honest.

A corollary to this state of affairs is that when leadership is absent, professional staff is not allowed to engage in any form of common sense judgement or calibration of adopted rules, even when it is clear to all parties involved that following the letter of the law is, in some cases, absurd.

4146305-198353-bureaucrat

The bureaucrat also learns another ruinous lesson: My job is not to strive to implement adopted policies or recommend new policies designed to achieve community quality of life objectives.

No, my job is simple and straightforward. Follow the letter of the law. No judgement or opinion allowed. Cover my ass. Nothing else is important.

This state of affairs shows the essential need for government and its elected officials to have some courage and leadership. If a public sector bureaucrat is stating a position in line with adopted policies of government, the role of the elected official (if the official is interested in being a leader) is to stand behind the staff person. Too often however, elected officials are not leaders. If a citizen complains to them about an opinion expressed by a staff person (including opinions that are consistent with adopted community policy), the knee-jerk response from timid, spineless officials is to unfairly blame or scapegoat the staff person.

“It’s not my fault, it is the fault of that staff person!”

A true leader takes a different approach. He or she informs the citizen that “the staff person is expressing adopted community policy, and I stand behind that staff person.”

By scapegoating staff rather than showing leadership, elected officials and their timid public agencies are wasting our time and money as Rome burns. And they are training their staff to be do-nothing, say-nothing bureaucrats.

Is it really worth it for us to offend no one? What objective does that achieve? I am convinced that such a tactical approach is a recipe for doing nothing.

 

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Filed under Politics, Town and Transportation Planning

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