Government—How Not to Do It

August 31, 2020

Bill Jordan, a public servant for around forty years, uses the Circumlocution Office's example to show how artfully Dickens portrays "the foibles of government bureaucracy."



Hi, my name is Bill Jordan.  In this episode of “Dickens To Go,” I am speaking to you from my home in the Nation’s Capital, Washington, DC.  I will be talking about Little Dorrit, a novel published by Charles Dickens in 1857. 

The novel focuses primarily on the story of the title character, Amy Dorrit, a sweet young woman who grew up in the Marshalsea, a debtor’s prison in London where her father was held for many years because he could not pay his creditors.  Over the course of the novel, Arthur Clennam, a man who recently returned to London from China, meets an adult Amy, becomes smitten with her, and resolves to help her and her family secure release from the Marshalsea.  That effort entails obtaining information about the nature of her father’s debts – information that is buried in the files of the Circumlocution Office.  The first encounter between Arthur and the Circumlocution Office is described in Chapter 10 of “Book The First – Poverty,” a chapter titled “Containing the Whole Science of Government.”  With such a lofty title, the chapter begins fittingly as follows:

The Circumlocution Office was (as everybody knows without being told) the most important Department under Government. No public business of any kind could possibly be done at any time without the acquiescence of the Circumlocution Office. Its finger was in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart. It was equally impossible to do the plainest right and to undo the plainest wrong without the express authority of the Circumlocution Office. . . .

This glorious establishment had been early in the field, when the one sublime principle involving the difficult art of governing a country, was first distinctly revealed to statesmen. It had been foremost to study that bright revelation and to carry its shining influence through the whole of the official proceedings. Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving — HOW NOT TO DO IT.

Through this delicate perception, through the tact with which it invariably seized it, and through the genius with which it always acted on it, the Circumlocution Office had risen to overtop all the public departments; and the public condition had risen to be — what it was.

I am drawn to this passage for many reasons.  The name, alone, gives me pleasure. If our Departments of Education and Transportation concern themselves with Education and Transportation, then the work of the Circumlocution Office must be “Circumlocution.” As you likely know, “circumlocution” means “using many words, when fewer would do, in a deliberate attempt to be vague or evasive.” What an awesome responsibility!

But this piece is more than mere name-calling.  It is, first, an insightful analysis of the administrative state that resonates with my own professional experience.  I worked for about forty years as a public servant at the US Environmental Protection Agency, and I came to know intimately the foibles of government bureaucracy.  Dickens brilliantly captures the worst, self-serving excesses of the bureaucratic entity.  Sadly today, the many shortcomings of government are still evident and have equally serious or worse consequences for the common good.   

Second, of course, is the masterful satire of Dickens’ depiction of the dysfunction of government.  No branch of government escapes his treatment.  The royalty, the Parliament, the senior and junior administrative officials -- all are exposed as doing anything but serving the public. 

Finally, this passage is so well crafted – such a nice piece of writing, it deserves to be savored, and of course, its efficiency and balance implicitly indict those in government who speak and write only in tortured, bureaucratic prose. 

To understand how Dickens sees the administrative state, let’s begin with the raison d’etre offered for the existence of the Circumlocution Office – “How Not to Do It.”  Although the chapter later makes its meaning abundantly clear, the editors of the 1998 Penguin edition, Stephen Wall and Helen Small, provide a helpful footnote explaining the phrase means “not ‘How to do it wrongly’, but ‘How not to do it at all’.” In short, The Circumlocution Office exists not to correct obvious problems that demand change, but rather to protect the status quo, including, of course, the existence and power of the Circumlocution Office. 

This is a common critique of the government.  Bureaucratic institutions seemingly almost never die.  (I digress.  Did you know, for instance, that, from 1897 to 1996, the United States had a Board of Tea Examiners entrusted with the essential governmental function of tasting tea?)   In any case, in Dickens’ world, administrative departments and agencies stifle innovation that would benefit the economy in order to protect vested interests.  They ignore the destructive conduct by allies of those in power and dole out favors to their cronies.  Scholars of modern government use different words—"executive overreach,” “regulatory capture”—but have reached essentially the same conclusions. 

And, of course, the satire is sharp.  The officials in the Circumlocution Office, identified later in the chapter, are all from the same family – the Barnacles – and the head of the Office is one Tite Barnacle.  No small wonder that they never let go of the sinecures their nepotism has secured.  Members of Parliament are likewise skewered for campaigning on the need for, and promise to bring, change, and yet, once they are elected, then ensuring that no change occurs.  Dickens even goes after the royalty, who are described as ceremonially opening sessions of Parliament with a call to attend diligently to the work of doing nothing and ceremonially closing the sessions with expansive compliments on having met that daunting challenge.

Third, these three paragraphs are just an exquisite piece of writing.  Little Dorrit, like much of Dickens’ work, uses paired structures – parallels and contrasts.  Dickens employs that technique to great effect here.  The second sentence, for example, reports that the Circumlocution Office has its finger “in the largest public pie, and the smallest public tart.”  A finger in the “largest public pie” conjures notions not only of widespread public corruption but also of a mischievous child with no impulse control.  A finger in “the smallest public tart” brings to mind an entirely different, and more adult kind of immorality.  The next sentence neatly distills the dual mission of government into two memorable phrases of only five words each–“to do the plainest right” and “to undo the plainest wrong.”  But both endeavors, sadly, are impossible without the authority of the Circumlocution Office. 

After announcing in the initial sentence of Chapter X that the Circumlocution Office “was (as everybody knows without being told) the most important Department under Government,” the second and third paragraphs of the chapter deftly inflate and then burst that characterization.  The second paragraph describes the Office as “early in the field,” the first to grasp “the sublime principle,” and an organization that carries its “shining influence through the whole of official proceedings.”  The third paragraph notes the Office possesses “delicate perception,” “tact,” and “genius,” allowing it to “overtop all the public departments.”  With expectations suitably raised, Dickens then reports the result of all of this brilliance: “the public condition has risen to be -- [you can almost imagine this dash becomes a drumroll] what it was.”  And (as everybody knows without being told) the public condition was not good.

How does Dickens have it all end? Arthur, himself, never gets the information about Mr. Dorrit’s debts from the Circumlocution Office.   But, a dogged private investigator helping Arthur discovers that Mr. Dorrit is heir to a large, unclaimed fortune.  Once the Dorrit family becomes wealthy, the bureaucracy quickly finds a way to accept payment from the inheritance, discharge the debts, and release the Dorrits from prison.

The world of Little Dorrit is not so different from our own.  How often has our government failed to do the “plainest right” and refused to correct the “plainest wrong”?  While this country’s national government seems to be failing on many, many fronts, senior government officials proclaim bigly and strongly that all is well.  But, the reality is (as everybody knows without being told) that the public condition is not good.  Understandably, many feel angry and hopeless.

Perhaps Little Dorrit provides, however, another perspective we should consider.  In a previous era, Dickens endured problems similar to ours, recognized them, and called them out. And, despite such problems, Little Dorrit also tells us that, through the sustained efforts of kind and concerned people, eventually good outcomes are possible.  Let us all heed its message to act out of kindness and concern to help others while seeking to make our government better serve the public good.

So, this piece’s combination of acute analysis, sharp satire, and peerless prose, together with Dickens’ hopeful resolution, make it one of my favorite Dickens passages. 



Portrait of Bill JordanBill Jordan is a relative newcomer to the Dickens Universe, starting in 2013, but quickly became an enthusiast.  His interest in government stems from his work for 40 years at the US Environmental Protection Agency on pesticide regulation.  Since retiring in 2016, he continues to work with environmental advocacy organizations and consult with companies on effective ways to control pest problems more safely.



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