Probing the mysterious habits of Cro-Bureaucrat man

This tribe doesn't live in the wilds of Africa. Its members wear no colorful native garb, apart from an occasional loud sport coat. Its chief handicraft - the memo - is not a tourist item on the level of, say, corn husk dolls or wooden masks.

But the federal bureaucrat, like a bushman or a Zulu, is part of a cohesive culture with its own symbols, myths, rituals, and language.

''Bureaucrats have a surprisingly complete array of cultural systems,'' says Shirley Fiske, an anthropologist who works for the Department of Commerce.

Take status symbols.

Out there in the jungle of the Washington bureacracy, where the naive face danger at every turn, it's often hard to tell who has real political power.

Job titles don't always help. (Who's more important, a deputy assistant secretary, a deputy to the assistant secretary, or an assistant deputy secretary?) Neither does length of limousine.

But savvy observers say there's at least one sure sign of federal clout: drapes.


''Office furniture is a key to status and power,'' says Shirley Fiske, who ran a recent American Anthropological Association seminar on the culture of the bureaucracy. ''I have been in conversations and even staff meetings where people compare desk size. A small couch has enormous prestige value. Window drapes are beyond the pale of most bureaucrats, and if you have them it is obvious that you have a great deal of pull.''

The office decor of most federal officials is regulated by the General Services Administration, which allows a measured increase in plushness for each step up in salary grade. High-level officials are allowed a 50-square-foot kitchen in addition to their office; the rank and file get modular room dividers and steel desks. The GSA even regulates the amount of floor space allotted to dictionary stands.

Then there are the rituals.

Many tribes engage in elaborate dances involving drums, campfires, and various body paints. In the federal bureaucracy, rites are a little more restrained.

''There's the taking of the sacred oath of office, the getting of a nameplate , the acquisition of business cards, and the annual Christmas festival,'' points out Muriel Crespi, a Park Service employee trained as an anthropologist.

Language is another crucial cultural determinant - and bureaucrats often speak in a tongue that seems as exotic as that of a Zulu tribe.

''Floyd is working on the juniors, and the spreadsheets and narratives are almost ready for the secretarial submission. But we'll need a crosswalk for the ATBs, and reimbursables. The Weather Service is offering up some Washington Monuments, and you know Congress'll never close those WSOs, so we'll have to eat them,'' rattles off anthropologist Shirley Fiske, with the aplomb of one fluent in a foreign language.

(Rough translation: ''Floyd is working on one part of the budget, which is almost ready for the secretary to look at. But we still need a little more information. The Weather Service, for its share of budget cuts, is offering to eliminate programs that are so politically popular Congress will never go along.'')

Eskimos have numerous words for ''snow,'' and bureaucrats have many terms for ''paper work'': decision memo, information memo, agency directive, and functional statement, for instance. Outside Washington, people ''sign'' things. Inside the government, the same action is called ''signing off.''

''It's like signing it off on a trip,'' says David Haines, a Deptartment of Health and Human Services official. ''You sign it, and off it goes. Sometimes never to return. An exchange of memos can take six months.''

Bureaucrats - like other tribes - tend to share a set of core values, anthropologists say. For instance, most of them justify their work by saying it's something that's important for the public good, but can't be done by the states and won't be done by private industry.

But, again like other tribes, not all their values are altruistic.

''It's common in the bureaucracy to set survival as the top organizational priority. The mission of the agency often comes pretty far down the line,'' says a government anthropologist who asked not to be named.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.