Beyond Guerrilla Government: Intrapreneurs, Cuff Systems, Side Projects and Hacks

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Public administrators often pursue their public interest aspirations and personal aspirations by taking initiative independent of their supervisors. Rosemary O’Leary (2006) called this “guerrilla government”, and provided real-life examples ranging from whistleblowers to “a state department of transportation employee who repaired a train gate where children were playing against the wishes of his superior.” (O’Leary 2010, 12)

O’Leary examined such behavior as a predicament for supervisors—should they “nurture, tolerate, or terminate” their guerrilla employees? (2010, 8) But independent initiative is not only a predicament for supervisors, it is a vital part of the public administrator’s toolkit. Whistleblowing is one form of independent initiative, but other forms are widespread and important:

Intrapreneurs create innovations in their organizations. Some organizations have procedures by which their hierarchy screens and selects ideas suggested by employees. (Desouza and Smith 2014) That can lead to innovations, if they are attractive to those in power.  More substantial intrapreneurship creates innovations despite the disinterest or opposition of the organization’s hierarchy. Because the intrapreneur has very limited command over the organization’s resources, she uses the techniques of effectuation— basing her strategy on the resources she can access, keeping her potential losses survivable, building effectiveness through alliances, and adapting to circumstances. (Sarasvathy 2001) This may lead to implementing the innovation as a “fact on the ground” which then acquires enough acceptance and support to be sustained. That was reportedly the genesis of the U.S. Government’s “Intellipedia” system. (Calabresi 2015)

Cuff Systems are information systems that are developed and maintained outside the organization’s official procedures for IT systems. They are often implemented as spreadsheets, but free cloud services such as Google Docs have increased the range of platforms available for such “shadow IT”. (Coles and Yeoh 2015) Public administrators often maintain cuff systems even for functions that are supposedly performed by an official system, because they find the official system does not meet their needs. (Long and McCoy 1982, 14; U.S. Dept. Interior 2002, 11; U.S. Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration 2001, 12–13)

Side Projects are projects related to the skills and topics of one’s job, but not done as part of the job. One example is an open-source project to assemble a searchable collection of all reports from Federal Inspectors General, by creating software that scrapes each agency’s web site for reports which are technically public, but have been obscure. The head of the project is an IT expert employed by the government, but doing this as a volunteer effort separate from his job. (Mill 2014)

Hacks are methods for doing work that are applied by an individual without reference to official procedures. Hayek explained one reason for hacks: “…practically every individual…possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active cooperation.” (Hayek 1945, 521–522) Other reasons for hacks are the cost and complexity of writing official procedures to accommodate the best work process for every circumstance, and difference in preferences between the individual and those who control the official procedures.


Calabresi, Massimo. 2015. “Wikipedia for Spies: The CIA Discovers Web 2.0.” Time. Accessed April 21.,8599,1890084,00.html.

Coles, Cameron, and John Yeoh, eds. 2015. Cloud Adoption Practices & Priorities Survey Report. Cloud Security Alliance.

Desouza, Kevin C., and Kendra L. Smith. 2014. “Building a Capacity for Intrapreneurship (Guest Column).” Government Technology. June 24.

Hayek, Friedrich A. 1945. “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” American Economic Review XXXV (No. 4): 519–30.

Long, F. S., and R.W. McCoy. 1982. “NOAA Administrative Information Systems ‐‐  An Evolutionary Strategy.” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Mill, Eric. 2014. “Opening up Government Reports through Teamwork and Open Data.” OpenGov Voices. November 7.

O’Leary, Rosemary. 2006. The Ethics of Dissent: Managing Guerrilla Government. CQ Press.

———. 2010. “Guerrilla Employees: Should Managers Nurture, Tolerate, or Terminate Them?” Public Administration Review 70 (1): 8–19. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6210.2009.02104.x.

Sarasvathy, Saras D. 2001. “Causation and Effectuation: Toward a Theoretical Shift from Economic Inevitability to Entrepreneurial Contingency.” The Academy of Management Review 26 (2): 243–63. doi:10.2307/259121.

U.S. Dept. Interior. 2002. “Improvements Needed In Developing and Reporting On GPRA Goals and Measures: Reducing Threats to Public Health, Safety, and Property.” 2002-I-0047. U.S. Department of the Interior Office of Inspector General.

U.S. Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. 2001. “Chapter 600.” In TIGTA Operations Manual.


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