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Petty Officiousness

September 21, 2009

“No tyranny is so irksome as petty tyranny: the officious demands of policemen, government clerks, and electromechanical gadgets.”Edward Abbey

In a New York Times Sunday Magazine article yesterday, Matthew Bai described the confidence and competence gaps President Obama must overcome to convince Congress and the public that his health care reforms and other programs will not produce bigger government failures than the market failures they seek to correct.  Bai rightly notes that the government has no monopoly on bureaucracy or petty behavior, but that doesn’t stop critics from complaining that bigger government is the worse of two evils.

The federal government is not alone when it comes to public scorn for bureaucratic bungling, ineptitude, and downright rudeness.  Nevertheless, the quality of opinions people hold about government tends to improve in inverse proportion to social distance and control.  As social distance and control increase, favorable opinions begin to fade — sometimes rather dramatically.

This relationship has often been taken as evidence that people demand more accountability from government.  Although this may be true in some sense, it is equally clear that people do not wish to spend a great deal of their own time and effort securing such accountability from government officials.  All they really want is the comfort of knowing that their interactions with bureaucrats will be both smooth and amenable.

These attributes bear some consideration.  Is it not true that people want fast service?  What about predictable results?  How about confidence that the will get the answer they expect or think they deserve?  Some, if not all, of these expectations may attach to any given transaction, but most people I have met and interacted with have reasonably practical expectations of government.  In other words, they know government exists to do things that do not always fit comfortably with their wants and desires but nevertheless satisfy some broader conception of the common good.

Recently, I have had the opportunity to work with police officials working to overcome public perceptions that they engage in wanton racial profiling.  The initial response of most police officers to such an allegation is usually quite defensive, but police here have taken a different tack.  They have not attempted to hide from the allegation, instead they have addressed it head-on.

Although they steadfastly deny that they make decisions about who to engage and how to approach them based solely or even predominantly on the basis of race, they do not deny that their past actions have produced disproportionate impacts on some communities of color.  But they note that the essence of community policing, a strategy widely embraced in communities of color, involves recognizing what makes communities unique.  These differences, of course, are more than skin deep.

Police now train officers to engage people with courtesy and respect, regardless of race, class, or circumstance.  In all but the most extreme circumstances, officers are encouraged to explain carefully and consistently what they are doing and why to each person they engage.  And perhaps most importantly, each officer is now expected to engage each contact on a personal level, which involves offering a business card imprinted with their name and badge number to each contact they make.

These steps alone will not change public perceptions of police.  But they will make police and policing more approachable and understandable.  Its success depends upon the extent to which these actions give people confidence that police are acting on their behalf and serving as an extension of their community in maintaining law and order.

Displacing petty officiousness with common courtesy goes a long way toward restoring a sense of decorum to public business.  This in turn fosters positive associations with competence and tends to promote trust and confidence in those who command of a sense of simple decency.  Who knows, if initiatives like this succeed, the trend might even rub off on Congress?

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