Neil A. Levine teaches strategic leadership at the National Defense University on a two-year faculty appointment from the U.S. Agency for International Development. He has over 25 years of federal service working in the executive branch and on Capitol Hill. ()
While viewers flock to the latest original Netflix program “House of Cards” to see how the capital really works, feds might consider HBO’s popular “Game of Thrones” for intriguing — albeit imperfect — analogies to the career civil service.
Consider the following GoT viewer’s guide for the federal worker:
In the area of national defense, the army of former slaves of the kingdom of Astapor is a highly trained, well-disciplined and effective fighting force, loyal to a female commander-in-chief. They are successful warriors, demonstrating a high degree of flexibility in doctrine and tactics. Somewhat murky is whether and how the so-called “Unsullied” have responded to open service by gays in their ranks or how the chain of command handles allegations of sexual violence.
So too, the kingdom of Westeros is home to the phenomenon of well-trained, battle-tested soldiers deciding to exit government service to offer themselves as well-compensated “sell-swords” in the employ of the GoT equivalent of private-security companies. Then, as now, regulations and professional codes might be described as “evolving.”
The Small Council, a semi-permanent cadre of senior advisors to the throne, is more problematic. It shows the dangers of a fully politicized senior executive service. The powerful royals rely heavily on the advice of two wise but dubious characters: a sycophantic eunuch who cozies up to whoever ascends the power curve and a part-time brothel owner whose knowledge of the system makes him a valuable but untrustworthy source of advice. Besides, the latter’s outside business interests would embroil a legion of ethics lawyers (and likely special prosecutors) just to sort through his sordid extracurricular activities.
The most appealing analogy is to the role of the “maesters,” the career administrators of the local castles and the surrounding villages who serve royally appointed allies of the crown. These characters are seen engaged in the mechanics of governance – securing the harvest, local administration of justice, the collection of taxes and other mundane governmental tasks. They also school the younger royals in the history of the realm and the basics of governance. Educated by Maester Luwin of Winterfell, one sees a ray of hope for the young members of the Stark family – if only they can keep their heads!
In Westros as in Washington, the career service has heroes and villains, those driven by ambition or sense of mission, those who serve the public or only themselves. They all play the game, to advance or merely to survive, and sometimes, even to serve without regard to self.
One question remains to complete the analogy: What about the dragons?
The views expressed are the author's and do not reflect the policy of the U.S. government, USAID or the National Defense University.