THE POWER OF LANGUAGE TO SHAPE THOUGHT AND ACTION - March 2008


As a person who studied Communications, Political Science, and Law during college and law school, I am acutely aware of the power of language to shape how we think about and act on problems.

The main example that comes to mind is the way we characterize how government positions are filled.

When I was growing up, like most American history students, I read about the 1881 assassination of President James Garfield, who was killed by a “disappointed office seeker.” I learned that this tragedy gave rise to “civil service reform”, which, if I remember the history books, characterized the change as being one which replaced an appointment system based on “patronage” or “spoils” with one based on “merit”. Like most Americans, I came to believe that the civil service system was an unqualified positive development for American government, and the old system was corrupt, to the point of being “un-American.” In fact, on the radio this past week, I also heard a radio commentator refer to “patronage” appointments in a very disparaging way.

As a person who has interacted extensively with elected officials, as well as their appointed government agency leaders, I have come to a much more balanced understanding of the relative advantages and disadvantages of the two systems for filling positions. While many civil service employees are dedicated, hard-working, imbued with a sense of mission, and able to provide expertise that political appointees can never hope to match, there are many government leaders who would argue that we have become unbalanced in creating career positions insulated from accountability for results versus accountable appointed positions in many government organizations.

What elected and appointed officials have told me is that the voters have put them into office to accomplish specific goals, and that they believe that, above a certain level in a government agency, officials should be “accountable” to the elected officials who are “held responsible by voters” to achieve certain public policy goals to which they have committed themselves. They look at career “civil service” officials as individuals who effectively have lifetime employment and, therefore, have “no incentive to be responsive to citizens.” They look at these officials as individuals who often deliberately frustrate the will of the people. They see appointed officials as having a clear mandate to do what citizens have expressed as their desires through the voting process.

They also say that career civil service officials are often unable to be removed from their position, even if they are incompetent performers, bad managers, or inappropriately resistant to change. They also comment that these officials block more talented people below them from getting promoted, and bring down the morale of an entire agency.

I agree with those who say that most states and the federal government have made it far too difficult for appointed agency heads to remove non-performers or under-performers. In many places, we are out of balance in protecting procedural due process for the employee, and insufficiently protective of the rights of citizens served by these under-performers, fellow employees, or those who are ultimately responsible for agency performance. We also do a disservice to the majority of civil service employees who really do consistent and excellent work year after year.

Relative to being responsive to voters, those who created the civil service system understood the need to balance the perspective of those voted into office to achieve particular objectives during their tenure as elected officials, and those who, because of civil service protection, are able to take the longer view, and build needed expertise. We should always maintain a set of checks and balances on government power, and a properly-constructed civil service system does just that.

Nevertheless, my fundamental point is that the choice of language drives us to very different ways of looking at the problem, and to conclusions about how to strike the balance. As a high-school student, I believed that we needed a civil service system for as many jobs as possible. As a person who sees many flaws in how our governments function, and as a citizen, I want elected officials and their appointees to have the maximum ability to accomplish what the voters have demanded that they do. We should never let our choice of labels and language obscure what are often difficult and delicate decisions on how to balance worthy, but competing, objectives.

My fondest wish is that the media use more balanced language in describing how government functions, and be attentive to the evaluative implications of what, on the surface, sounds like morally-neutral language. The choice of words has consequences, and tilts seemingly “objective” reporting in a very biased direction.