Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Dissent in Public Organizations

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Last week Nick and I delved into the long-term arc of communities and the people that comprise them. I was thinking about how public servants of a certain stripe will spend their careers navigating tension between short- versus long-term results, their intuition versus their instructions, and even different tenets of the Values and Ethics Code versus each other (see: Tricksters, Hackers, and Schemers). Nick explored the arc of the #W2P community in particular, summing up and offering theories how such communities evolve (see: The Gentrification of #W2P).

It’s important for a couple reasons. It’s partially because #W2P, even from my biased perspective, was significant in the Government of Canada. The community was tightly coupled with the learning curve into digital, and particularly social, communication. Many “members” of the community are now involved in transformation and innovation projects. (Ryan Androsoff started a wiki to map the community timeline - I encourage you to visit and contribute.)

But mainly? I just think that public organizations really, really need a healthy culture of challenge. Now more than ever.

In defence of challenge

When talking about challenge, I’m referring both to organizations systematically fostering dialogue and deliberation, as well as individuals being willing to step up when they feel something is awry - the tricksters referenced last week. But, first a quick word on that latter option.

At it’s worst, this could be seen as a rationalization for questioning others’ experience or judgment, justifying roguish behaviour. Perhaps anyone who thinks in trickster terms isn’t actually a prime candidate for public service - we all know the rules of the game we’ve signed up for. But that all depends on the interpretation of those (and many other) rules and a philosophy of public service (try Dwight Waldo’s Twelve Ethical Obligations of public servants for an alternate take). Over the last few years the Values and Ethics Code and The Ethics of Dissent have been common topics on CPSRenewal. This is not taken lightly.

And truthfully, the "rules of the game" are often somewhat uncertain. The relationship between elected officials and the public service is explicit, but the relationship between members of the public service is murkier. It seems as though the rule of “fearless advice, loyal implementation” is applied throughout organizations, exapting the political-bureaucratic rule to a different context.

Why challenge is needed

Public servants' ethical obligations (to stewardship, respect for democracy, respect for people, and integrity) always require a culture that welcomes challenge. But the "now, more than ever" part is because our governance algorithms are better suited to some decisions than others. For the most part, everything gets the same treatment. The organizational structure for, say, policy advice is largely identical to that for process improvements, administrivia, communications, and manufacturing.

I’d argue that it’s often borderline unfair to ask people to make decisions under these parameters, expecting an authoritative direction in areas where there’s no experience, best practices, or precedence (see: Innovation and Rigour). For instance, I wrote a few months ago that essentially everyone - in and out of government - is only beginning to climb the learning curve for online collaboration (see: The Promise of Online Collaboration). In this view, few if any people are experts, and we'd be crazy to think that anyone would singlehandedly have the expertise to solve something truly complex that had never been tackled before.

We see symptoms like this: in any large organization, people often talk of “picking their battles,” the logic of which is uncomfortable. It’s essentially shorthand for “I believe we’re about to make the wrong decision, but I’m choosing not to say anything because I think things are such that saying anything will make everything worse off in the long run.” I think public servants in particular have a duty to avoid or mitigate such dilemmas.

This is where the challenge culture is required. We often hear that the pace and complexity of the world is increasing (the Clerk of the Privy Council’s speech yesterday is an example), and that we must be agile and responsive. I think there’s a compelling case that where a decision is characterized by complexity, novelty, and a diverse range of stakeholders, we might want to consider trading speed for diligence (see: What We Lost in the Fire We Gain in the Flood). In some cases, the appropriate role for government may be the slow, deliberative space. A space where challenge is welcomed, and we are cautious and intentional in how we manage power dynamics and systemic biases.

Or, as Rosemary O’Leary put it in The Ethics of Dissent

“Some [moments of dissent] are canaries in the coal mine telling us that something is awry… [employees willing to challenge assumptions]  just may become creative assets to public organizations if their dissent is listened to and channeled appropriately. 

That can happen is public organizations strive for a culture that accepts, welcomes, and encourages candid dialogue and debate. Cultivating a questioning attitude that encourages a diversity of views and encourages staff members to challenge the assumptions and actions of the organization is important.”

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