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Impossible Conversations - The Ethics of Dissent: Managing Guerrilla Government

Monday, August 26, 2013
by Tariq PirachaRSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Tariq Pirachatwitter / tariqpirachaGoogle+ / tariqpiracha

The Ethics of Dissent
The Ethics of Dissent: Managing Guerrilla Government by Rosemary O'Leary came to us perhaps a few months too soon: her second edition is set to come out this fall. I'm not sure what else she would say on the topic other than to outline newer examples of Guerrilla Government. That said, I did find the first edition to be a useful exercise in an examination of the ethical public servant.

O'Leary's (text)book focuses on public servants in the United States who push back against management to do, what they believe to be, the right thing. It is filled primarily with case studies that involve front line workers pitted against senior management, wrestling between process and governance; politics and the public interest.

I found it easy to empathize with the dissenters, the front line workers, the guerrillas and it really isn't surprising that my copy of O'Leary's book is filled with earmarked pages and underlined passages about bureaucratic politics, groupthink and ethical dilemmas.

However, when it comes right down to it, my attention is most strongly drawn to the following question: "Who defines what is ethical?"

In 1988, Dwight Waldo outlined what he believed to be the twelve key ethical obligations of a U.S. public servant. Democracy, the constitution, the bureaucracy, family, religion, are some of the obligations that may pull us one way or another when trying to figure out how best to act in any given situation. They may not all pull at the same time, or with the same severity or intensity, but it is a good wake-up call as to the many pressures on a public servant.

The Values and Ethics Code for the Government of Canada is supposed to serve as a guidepost for public servants as to how they should act. For the most part, the code is open to interpretation and negotiation. 

A good manager will discuss the Code with their employees on its interpretation and applicability, in person or in groups. However, I fear that these kinds of discussions are few and far between and that many organizations may opt for "read this Code and sign it" or "complete this online module" as their way of keeping everyone accountable.

There are many benefits to having group discussions on values, ethics and the obligations of a public servant, but the one that resonates most with me is also captured by O'Leary when she proposes that "Public employees need enough time to understand the totality of the issues they are addressing." They need to appreciate the big picture, and how their role fits into the greater organization. In the absence of understanding, we may continue to see more examples of guerrilla government. Whether you judge that to be a positive or a negative thing, I leave to you.

For those who would dare to discuss the Values and Ethics Code, Waldo's twelve ethical obligations would make a great ice breaker, and if for no other reason, made O'Leary's book worth reading for me.









George Wenzel — "...All public servants make choices every day, and those choices have political ramifications..."
George Wenzel

Is there an underground movement of dissenters in government? Guerrillas who disobey their superiors for the greater good? If so, what motivates them? Is some dissent in the public sector a good thing?

In an amazingly dense but short book, Rosemary O'Leary explores these questions. She uses examples from the environmental policy field in the United States, but the common themes apply to public services worldwide. O'Leary posits that "guerrilla government" is more common than one might think.

Key in the discussion is an exploration of the ethical obligations of public servants. Drawing from the work of Waldo (1988), O'Leary notes that public servants have obligations to the constitution, the laws, the nation or country, democracy, organizational/bureaucratic norms, their profession and professionalism, family and friends, themselves, middle-range collectives (political parties, ethnic groups, unions, etc), the public interest or general welfare, humanity more broadly, and religion/spirituality or God. Not every ethical decision will touch upon all of these obligations, but they all float in the back of every public servant's mind.

A couple key ideas that expanded my understanding of ethics in public service were the notion that public servants are not impartial, non-political actors. All public servants make choices every day, and those choices have political ramifications. A second idea is that dissent is not necessarily a troublesome aspect of public organizations, but rather can be vital to innovation and change. Sometimes it takes a dedicated dissenter to come up with what will be the next great innovative public policy.

At around 120 pages, The Ethics of Dissent should be mandatory reading for new public servants. I know that when I was hired into government I had no idea how many ethical crossroads I would face, nor did I give much thought to their impacts. O'Leary's book has expanded my thinking in this area, and for that I'm grateful.



Nelly Leonidis  — "...Is the recent increase in high-level dissent a signal that something much larger is broken..."
Nelly Leonidis

At the time I was reading the book, the case of Bradley Manning was underway, and Edward Snowden was the daily topic of conversation at work and online. This happy coincidence allowed me to think about the ideas, stories and “lessons” share in through the lens of what is ethical and what is not on a large scale – not only as a civil servant but as a global citizen as well.

I enjoyed the book itself. There were several external concepts introduced in the book that helped frame the dialogue that happened afterwards (for example, what are the ethical obligations that I strongly identify with/abide by – as per Waldo’s Map of ethical obligations).

I found the stories – while interesting – to be repetitive. The topic of environmental activities and eco-social responsibility are usually the go-to example for conversations about what is right in the long run, what is ethical, what is moral, etc. But that restricted the conversation to that field. Many of the stories were over 10 years old, so relating to some of the issues was difficult given that the civil service (rules, regulations, work environment) has changed significantly. Relating to these stories was difficult,  and the absence of recent examples in the book itself will be a limitation to opening up this conversations to different sectors and industries. For example, I would love to see examples from the “global financial institutions’ massive screw up of 2008/09” – were there any guerrillas that tried to effect change before the whole thing went belly up?

I liked the sections that addressed how leaders can spot a guerrilla trend and try to work with challenge agents (yes, I just wrote that. blech). At the very least, they’re conversation starters with those we seek to work alongside, or an attempt to explain what it is we’re doing/feeling.

This book also brought up a few questions that I hadn’t considered before, such as:
 

- If a middle manager (our favourite “clay layer”..layer), decides to go against the grain due to reasons s/he believe to be right, does his/her decision create a subset of individuals who could be mistaken for defectors. That is, does he have the right to impose his beliefs on his subordinates, and possibly hinder their careers? Does it rationalize away the responsibility if the outcome is positive? Do the subordinates suffer if the outcome is negative?

- Is using the word “dissent” an obstacle in of itself? If you look at things as challenges right at the start, it’s more likely to create complications that didn’t exist before.

- Is the recent increase in high-level dissent (Snowden, Manning, or for example Sylvie Therrien) a signal that something much larger is broken, so an increase in the # of reported acts of “dissent” could mean that the ethical compass is shifting?

- In terms of GoC: Is creating genuine safe spaces one way to spot and handle dissent before it escalates into something larger? This would require re-writing some policies that deal with how we communicate with each other.

- Do current collective agreements allow for the conversations civil servants need to have with managers in the early stages of disgruntlement/dissent?

- Can ADMs/ BluePrint 2020 champions and DMSMPD leads answer the Q on page 105: “What is the value of dissent in organizations and to society as a whole?”

- Is it possible that some people are just dissenters by nature, and will find a reason to revolt anyway? Can you curb the natural appetite of people who are pre-disposed to focusing on the broken parts? 



Kent Aitken — "...What is the appropriate balance of fearless advice and loyal implementation..."
I'd imagine this book reads very differently depending on the lens through which it is viewed. Dr. O'Leary has been told that her mere study of the ethics of dissent is upsetting (the lens there was of duty: i.e, dissent is always wrong). Some may read Dissent as an exploration of the line between duty and morals, some as a guide on how to manage something that is both widespread and a phenomenon, and others, as a playbook for standing up for one's beliefs.

When I hit on interesting concepts, I tried to rotate through the possible lenses. My long story short? There is no simple answer or correct view. When we sat down together to discuss the book, it was clear that there was a lot of grey area, and the need for careful definition of what constituted dissent: as opposed to either irresponsibility on one end, or frank advice on the other.

Before the end of the first chapter O'Leary introduces us to a handful of controversial academic perspectives: Beneviste, who suggests that "politics is never devoid of ideological content" and that it is time to stop feigning neutrality; that public servants should "admit that they are both experts and committed political actors." Another, Lipsky, argues that "street-level [bureaucrats]", due to a degree of discretion and autonomy, are effectively policy-makers in the leeway they have in carrying out their jobs. And the other I found interesting was Waldo, whose map of civil servants' ethical obligations had twelve equally weighted nodes, including laws, public interest, democracy, organizational norms, and so on - which does not necessarily mirror the Values and Ethics code for Canadian bureaucrats.

And so in framing her case studies, O'Leary led me back to questions that are common topics around Canadian civil service circles: what is the appropriate balance of fearless advice and loyal implementation? How ironclad is civil servants' duty of loyalty to the will of the Canadian people, as represented by the decisions of their elected officials?

I found this framing more potent (not necessarily more interesting) than the individual cases. You'd actually need a healthy discussion on each to really pull lessons out, due to the complexity and moral ambiguity of each scenario. I can see why this book works well in an academic setting.

If I finished this book with any key takeaway, it was of the need for far more discussions about values and ethics in the public service. Frank and honest. Codes as written are a starting point, but any effort taken to approach a genuine shared understanding of their nuances and applications will be worthwhile.



John Kenney — "Dissent can manifest itself in numerous ways and can have positive or negative repercussions..."
John Kenney
The dilemma of guerrilla government is truly a public policy issue: There is a need for accountability and control in our government organizations, but that same accountability and control can stifle innovation and positive change. (The Ethics of Dissent: Managing Guerrilla Government, p. 100)
Picture this*: The head of a government bureaucracy crafts a vision of how the organization must change, now and in the future, in response to increasing issue complexity, interconnectedness and other economic, social, and technological drivers. She engages her employees on what the vision means to them and asks for ideas on how they can adapt the way they work, individually and collectively, to achieve it.

Sadie, an employee with the organization, has been waiting for this moment. "What took them so long?" She's been circumventing hierarchical org structures by tapping into horizontal networks of like-minded colleagues for years. They've been leveraging technology to make connections, organize meet-ups, share and promote info and ideas on innovative goings-on in the public and private spheres. She's shared some what-she-felt-to-be-feasible solutions to perceived problems with her managers, but they typically went nowhere for a host of reasons, some of which were never communicated to her. That didn't stop her though. She continued to exploit opportunities to build her case for change, sometimes going against her managers' wishes. She’ll continue to do so too…under the radar if necessary. She wants fundamental, whole-scale change in the way the organization operates and delivers its mandate.
Sometimes [guerrillas] fail to see the big picture, promoting policies that may not be compatible with the system as a whole. (p. 6)
Bert, a manager, is less enthused. This is not the first “renewal” initiative he's seen or heard of. "Here we go again." Plus, the employee engagement strategy has opened up the floodgates for any and every idea. Who's supposed to manage all this change, not to mention the expectations? He bets that most of the employees pushing the “private sector fads” wouldn't propose them if they had some public sector management experience. The public sector is unique in his view. Change should be iterative, not disruptive. He serves at his supervisor's request and all the way up the line. Clear lines of accountability and message control are necessary to manage risks. Bert admits to not being up to speed on social media technologies but doesn't see how they relate to his work anyway. In his mind, promoting ideas and practices that management feels are not appropriate can be a waste of time, and even reckless. Bert's been chatting informally with like-minded managers and staff about toning down the reform message despite the call for bold, innovative proposals.
In the day-to-day grind of public service, managers' overwhelming preoccupation with what comes across their desks may ignore another more fundamental reality. When we fail to see the whole picture, when we neglect the perspective of open systems, of wholeness and connectedness, and of open communications, we only see one side of the dissent issue: It is a "problem"; they are a "pain," "a thorn in my side," "an annoyance to deal with.” (pp. 118-119)
Both employees and managers can fail to see the big picture.

Dissent can manifest itself in numerous ways and can have positive or negative repercussions in public sector organizations. Attempts to contain it or shut it down altogether can backfire by forcing guerrillas (e.g. disgruntled employees, innovators, idealists, insubordinates, policy entrepreneurs), out of the picture, possibly to reappear unexpectedly later on. Maybe they'll make everything better like a Valencia filter. Or maybe they'll sabotage your intended outcome like a photobomb. You won't know unless they're in focus.

There are guerrillas in our midst. Engage them. Listen. Debate ideas. Learn.

Take a big picture.

*Disclaimer: Sadie, Bert, and the situation described above are fictitious. Also, in real life, there are managers who are open to new ways of working and change. There are employees who are content with the status quo. If you can relate to Sadie or Bert and/or your organization just so happens to be going through a visioning exercise, I highly recommend you join the conversation.


Next up: The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath by Nicco Mele. Interested in taking part? Send us an email, leave a comment, send us a tweet. You know the drill.