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The Year the Public Servant Became the Bureaucrat

January 21, 2014 by Tracy Burrows
Category: Management

The Year the Public Servant Became the Bureaucrat

Cultural shifts are reflected in the language that we use. We can see this over the past 50 years of city planning as we have shifted from "urban renewal," which quickly took on the connotation of a flawed solution imposed on a neighborhood, to "community redevelopment" with a greater emphasis on community involvement, to the current interest in "placemaking" -- a people-centered approach to revitalization, planning, design, and management of public spaces. With a new tool, Google Books Ngram Viewer, we can track changes in language use in ways that were never possible before. For those of us in public service, these changes reveal an unsettling trend of greater ambivalence toward government and an emphasis of individual over community values.

The Ngram Viewer searches a database of 5.2 million books. You can search the database for a word or term to find out how its use has changed over time. In the New York Times, David Brooks has cited a study that showed "between 1960 and 2008 individualistic words and phrases increasingly overshadowed communal words and phrases."
That is to say, over those 48 years, words and phrases like "personalized," "self," "standout," "unique," "I come first" and "I can do it myself" were used more frequently. Communal words and phrases like "community," "collective," "tribe," "share," "united," "band together" and "common good" receded.

The Google database also turns up some fascinating information on how our views of government have changed over time. From 1800 to 1940, the term "public servant" far outpaced "bureaucrat" as a descriptor for government employees. From 1940 to 1960, both terms rose in prominence. Then, sometime in the early 1960's (right around the time of President Kennedy's assassination) "bureaucrat" began to outpace "public servant" and has been more popular ever since.


The rise of the property rights movement can be seen though the Ngram data as well. The term "equal rights" appears with relatively steady frequency from 1900 onward. In contrast, "property rights" takes off in the mid-1970's and is found more than twice as frequently as "equal rights" by the year 2000. "Voting Rights" rises steadily from 1900 on, but is still found less frequently than either "Equal Rights" or "Property Rights."

property rights

Our language matters. I believe we are on the cusp of a renewed appreciation for public service that may take a generation to be recognized as a cultural trend. Ngram gives us a fascinating retrospective look at these trends. It's interesting to think about who will create the language of the future as it relates to the work that we do.

About Tracy Burrows

As MRSC’s Executive Director, Tracy seeks out innovations in local government, tracking trends in management and technology that impact your work. She has over 20 years of local government and non-profit experience, specializing in growth management, transportation, and general city management issues.



"Great article! When I hear the term bureaucrat used, it usually means a government employee who has undue and/or unjust power and control over citizens' lives. You're right; it has a bad flavor to it. For the term public servant to come back into favor, people are going to have to feel more confident in their government, particularly at the federal level. Ire towards the feds trickles down to wrath directed at all levels of government. Citizens are also going to have to feel like public servants exist primarily to help them, not to micromanage them. Many people resent the fact that public employees they didn't choose to represent their interests-- who are union-protected, almost impossible to fire, and well-paid by their tax dollars-- seem to know what's better for them than they do. As a longtime public servant, I have witnessed behavior that reinforces negative public servant stereotypes and fans the flames of wrath by providing poor customer service. To me the prime directive of public service is to treat others how you'd want to be treated and this should be consistently encouraged and modeled by management. I don't want to be nitpicked, sworn at, made to feel stupid, pressured to hand over total control to a stranger, ignored, belittled, or yelled at when I call a public agency. No one does. If we would consistently treat others with respect and make problem solving a partnership, not a dictatorship, I believe we could accomplish much more for the greater good and regain the public's trust. Thankfully a lot of public employees do this already."

wildninja on Jan 21, 2014 9:09 PM

"Perhaps a different way to look at these graphs and data is to realize that today we have a public that is not at all happy with government, local or national. The very word "bureaucrat" has a very negative connotation with most people I know. Perhaps it is only government workers who think it is positive. There is an unbalanced feeling which means we're at a tipping point, at least I hope so."

LR Finlay on Jan 21, 2014 10:34 AM

2 comments on The Year the Public Servant Became the Bureaucrat


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