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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.

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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.