Underscoring the Ethics of Dissent

By: LeAnn Beaty, Ph.D., MPA director and associate professor  

Tensions between the Trump administration and career civil servants arose almost immediately following the 2016 election. After repeatedly criticizing the bureaucracy on the campaign trail, one of Donald Trump’s first acts as President was to freeze government hiring. Social media accounts responded by tweeting out messages at odds with his agenda and leaks began flowing into newsrooms from across the federal government. When President Trump turned to working out the details of plans to restrict refugees coming into the country, the Defense Department used Twitter to publicize an article about an Iraqi refugee who became a U.S. Marine. Some agencies, according to news sources, were notably subversive in their messages, posting quotes and commentary that could be seen as trying to bait their new boss into a confrontation (Lerer & Bykowicz, 2017).

Climate advocacy groups also pledged to fight back after Environment Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt—a Trump appointee—announced he would repeal the Obama-era Clean Power Plan (Conley, 2017). State and local leaders vowed to move forward with plans to limit greenhouse gas emissions. President Trump was reportedly frustrated with leaks of embarrassing information, and on September 21, 2017, the Associated Press reported that employees at the EPA would be required to attend mandatory training sessions to reinforce federal laws and rules against leaking information: Former Cabinet officials say the president would be wise not to underestimate the power of the civil service, which not only has the ability to slow the progress of new regulations but also the inside knowledge to sound alarms when needed (Lerer & Bykowicz, Associated Press, 2017).

In light of recent events, The Ethics of Dissent: Managing Guerrilla Government (2014), by Rosemary O’Leary should be required reading for every civil servant, elected official, and student of public administration. The Ethics of Dissent features “guerrilla government,” O’Leary’s term for the actions of career public servants who work against the wishes—either implicitly or explicitly communicated—of their superiors (2006, xi).

It is important to distinguish guerrilla government from whistleblowers. A leak is generally a voluntary disclosure of classified information to the public through informal channels, usually provided by an unidentified source (Lee, 2017). Guerillas may obey their superiors in public, but disobey them in private. They often cultivate positive relationships with client groups, interest groups and the media. They may leak information to the media, using informal tips or formal press releases.  Whistle blowers, by comparison, are actors who may have exhausted formal internal channels and thus chosen to alert someone outside the organization to report wrongdoing in the workplace (Svara, 2007). Although negative consequences can result from internal complaints for a disgruntled employee, the “full force of organizational retaliation often accompanies a known whistleblower going outside the organization to point out what they believe are inappropriate actions of an organization (Ibid., 115)[1].Hence, notes O’Leary:

Most guerrillas do not become a whistle-blower. Even though they are dissatisfied with the actions of public organizations, sometime even documenting fraud and abuse, they typically choose not to go public in a big way. Rather, they choose to work behind the scenes (2006, 5).

Guerrilla government, O’Leary continues, is about the power of career bureaucrats; the tensions between career bureaucrats and political appointees; the intrinsic and extrinsic motivation of public employees; organization culture; the use of the media as a management tool; and what it means to act responsibly, ethically, and with integrity as a public servant (Ibid., xi). O’Leary’s first and second editions of the book are organized around a central thesis, that the majority of instances of guerrilla government are the manifestation of tensions between bureaucracy and democracy. A number of intriguing case studies highlight examples of guerilla actions from state and federal agencies, and a conclusion to the cases raise important ethical questions and provide lessons that challenge readers to consider whether government guerillas are ethical crusaders or insubordinate renegades (Ibid., xiii).

There are a number of important lessons we can all take from The Ethics of Dissent.  

First, dissent can be constructive. Dissent may provide insight into the size and intensity of opposition; it may generate new ideas and improve management decision making; it can alert an organization to potential problems. Dissent may also increase employee trust and/or morale if they believe themselves to have greater ownership of the organizational mission; and have more ownership to solutions (Svara, 2007, 5-6).

Second, dissent can be costly, or misguided. As O’Leary also points out, guerilla government poses ethical and moral questions that are not easy to answer. Dissent can have a corrosive effect on the morale and discipline of an organization, and even put people’s lives in jeopardy. Dissent, states O’Leary, can become a preoccupying force that distracts from the central mission of the organization; it can slow organization efficiency and lead to hurt feelings, and misdirecting human capital (109).

Third, and perhaps most importantly, leadership matters. New political appointees must, notes O’Leary, be educated about their own subordination to the rule of law, the requirements of the Constitution, the nature of legislative oversight, the desirability of working with career employees, and what it takes to lead in public agencies (Ibid, 3).

Works Cited:

Biesecker, M. (2017, September 21). Federal employees ordered to attend anti-leaking classes. Retrieved February 02, 2018, from http://us.pressfrom.com/news/politics/-85324-federal-employees-ordered-t...

Dreams, C., & Writer, J. C. (2017, October 09). Climate Groups Vow to Fight in Court and Streets as Trump EPA Pulls Plug on Clean Power Plan. Retrieved February 02, 2018, from https://www.commondreams.org/news/2017/10/09/climate-groups-vow-fight-co...

O’Leary, R. (2014), “The Ethics of Dissent: managing Guerrilla Government” 2nd Ed., CQ Press, Washington D.C. 

O’Leary, R. (2006), “The Ethics of Dissent: managing Guerrilla Government” CQ Press, Washington D.C. 

Svara, J. (2007), “The Ethics Primer for Public Administrators in Government and Nonprofit Organizations,” Jones and Bartlett Publishers, Sudbury, Mass.

Lerer, L., & Bykowicz, J. (2017, January 25). Government bites back: Civil servants troll Trump, leak info. Retrieved February 02, 2018, from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/government-bites-back-civil-servants...


[1] It is lawful for a whistleblower-leaker to disclose information confidentially or anonymously to any audience, including the media, if the information is not classified and/or its disclosure is not specifically prohibited by statute such as the Uniform Trade Secrets Actaccording to the Government Accountability Project(GAP).

 

Published on February 19, 2018