Citizens Deserve to Hear Dissent in Government

Washington needs more dissent channels, according to Neal K. Katyal’s op-ed in the New York Times.[1] He is right about this, but he wants dissent that is hidden from the public, and that is wrong.

Katyal points to a memo from 51 U.S. diplomats that criticizes current U.S. policy in Syria and calls for military action to prevent “dire, if not disastrous, humanitarian, diplomatic, and terrorism-related challenges.”[2] The diplomats submitted the memo to the State Department’s “Dissent Channel”, a procedure in the department’s rules that allows employees to send their views to the Secretary’s Policy Planning Staff. The rules prohibit supervisors from retaliating against employees for using the Dissent Channel.

Katyal supports the Dissent Channel, and notes with approval other examples of policy debate within and between Federal agencies, including CIA “red teams” and input to the Solicitor General from Justice Department divisions and other Federal agencies. As Katyal notes, allowing people working in government to express conflicting views helps spot flaws in logic and analysis, and can give rise to more informed discussion and innovative solutions.

But Katyal’s article does not support letting the public hear dissent by government workers. He says the Syria dissent “raises a fear” that the memo appears to have leaked. It certainly leaked; it is on the internet, even though State’s rules prohibit disclosing a Dissent Channel message to unauthorized personnel.[3] Keeping disagreement non-public is the price Dissent Channel users pay for the promise they will not face retribution. But the Syria memo had impact precisely because it became known to the public and reported in the press. While Katyal says leaking “raises a fear”, what we should really fear is that the 51 diplomats who signed the Syria memo, and other government workers who have strong arguments against government actions, are intimidated from presenting those arguments in public.

Katyal says debate within and among Executive Branch agencies provides checks and balances. Such debate has some value, but it is no check on the officials in power at any given time, because they get to pick the arguments that support their own agendas and dismiss the others. By contrast, when information and analysis from government workers are available to the public, they are a more powerful check on the ability of officials to act in ways that an informed public would not tolerate.

Of course some government information, such as battle plans and citizens’ health records, needs to be kept secret. But the Syria dissent memo revealed no such information—nothing in it was classified. Even so, the 51 diplomats would not be protected by whistleblower laws if they had published their memo rather than using the non-public Dissent Channel. Whistleblower laws only apply to reporting narrowly-defined malfeasance, not bad policy or poor management.

Government workers should be able to speak publicly about what government does, without fear of retribution. Rather than more dissent channels that keep information from the public, as Katyal advocates, we need safe harbors for government workers to inform the public without fear of retribution. The safe harbor could be similar to current whistleblower laws, but applicable to any discussion of government operations, not just reporting narrowly defined types of malfeasance. It could prohibit retribution against a government worker for public statements regarding government operations, as long as she does not reveal any information for which disclosure is illegal and does not give the impression of speaking on behalf of the government.

Such a safe harbor would be strongest if it was implemented in legislation, like current whistleblower laws. It could also be created by agency regulation, but it does not seem likely that any agency head would empower employees to disagree with her in public. Another possibility is for the Merit System Protection Board or the courts to build case-by-case precedent that retribution against government workers for legal public statements violates existing civil service laws.

The Syria dissent memo demonstrates that allowing government workers to disagree with official positions is of very limited value if they must hide their information from the public. The memo became significant only when it was leaked. Government workers should not need to leak, or risk retribution, to give the public insights that contradict the officials in power.

[1] Neal K. Katyal, “Washington Needs More Dissent Channels,” The New York Times, July 1, 2016,

[2] 51 U.S. Diplomats, “Dissent Channel: Syria Policy,” 2016,

[3] U.S. Dept. of State, “2 FAM 070 General Administration – Dissent Channel,” accessed July 13, 2016,


Annotated Work Instructions: An ISO 9000 Hack presented at Office of Personnel Management

Center for Public Administrators participated in the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s “Stories in Innovation” event on June 24, 2016, with our presentation on Annotated Work Instructions. The presentation showed how a public administrator can build an efficient process for her work, and convince others to comply with that process, even when the procedures promulgated by agency officials are vague, contradictory or non-existent. The deck is at

Public Administration Practitioners at Academic Conferences: Why to Present and How to Succeed

Most practitioners never attend any of the public administration academic conferences, but it could be well worth your time. And if you attend, it makes sense to give a presentation. My new working paper advises why to present, and how to do it successfully.

Here are some excerpts:

Presenting at a conference is evidence of your expertise. This is especially useful if your job does not provide much opportunity for accomplishments that are recognized outside your organization.

Many people practicing public administration were educated in a different field, so a conference can be an introduction to the public administration professional community..[T]he people you meet…tend to be the most innovative practitioners, the best prospects for collaboration within and outside your job, and the most willing to share information.

A practitioner can present her own experience with techniques she has applied or cases she has participated in. A frank presentation of what she tried, what worked, what failed and what she observed can show other practitioners what they want to copy or avoid, and can show academics a specific instance of phenomena they might want to study more generally…Your new information does not need to be broad in scope to be valid and valuable.

[A]fter your proposal is accepted and your panel is scheduled, you should do outreach to encourage people attending the conference to come to your panel. If you know anybody who will be at the conference, then contact them personally to invite them to attend your panel. If somebody on another panel is speaking on a topic related to yours, then contact them to say you are looking forward to attending their panel and suggest that they attend yours.

I also give examples of presentations by practitioners at the 2015 Northeast Conference on Public Administration (NECoPA), which I helped organize.

The working paper “Public Administration Practitioners at Academic Conferences: Why to Present and How to Succeed” is at

Hack and Tell for Public Administrators

@matis presenting her Borges twitter bot at DC Hack and Tell (credit: @zugaldia)

Civic hackers are changing government, applying do-it-yourself, do-it-together and open source to create what government hierarchies won’t. Some civic hackers are public administrators; many are software developers, journalists, community organizers, lawyers, etc. This column will report on civic hacking in the national capital area, to show how we can each be more than our place in an organization chart.

This edition looks at DC Hack and Tell, a monthly “show and tell for hackers”. At each meeting, seven to ten people present their projects. The rules are “no startup pitches, no dull work projects, no deckware”. The “no deckware” part is key. It means don’t present a deck of slides that just proposes doing something; present something you have created, even if it is incomplete or semi-functional. Many of the projects are software or digital hardware, others are unrelated to computers. There’s a lot to interest a public administrator, even if your technical skills are minimal or way out of date (like mine).

Some of the hacks are innovative ways to deliver a public service. For example, Steve Trickey’s presentation on Hacking Kids’ Brains showed an approach used by a nonprofit he works with; teaching a programming language designed for children’s characteristics (poor typing, attraction to games and stories, etc.). They encourage the students to remix existing code rather than starting from scratch, which is in line with modern software development practices.

Other hacks show analytic techniques most of us aren’t familiar with. For example, Ben Klemens presented his income tax preparation program.  At first glance it’s just a free, less comprehensive substitute for TurboTax. But what is fascinating for a public administrator is how Klemens created it; translating the complex set of administrative and legal requirements represented in IRS forms into a dependency tree and a “directed acyclic graph”. Translating the requirements to this form not only enables computing the tax amount for an individual, but also facilitates more complex analyses such as how a particular change in requirements would affect the aggregate tax on a diverse group of taxpayers. This is a potentially powerful approach to analyzing administrative systems that most public administrators have never thought about.

Public administrators should consider not only attending Hack and Tell, but also presenting. I found a welcoming audience and useful feedback there for my totally non-technical presentation on guerrilla government strategies.

DC Hack and Tell meets one evening a month, usually at the WeWork co-working space in Chinatown. It’s free and there are sometimes refreshments. Information and sign-up are at

Medical Case Reports as a Model for Public Administrators

Medical journals traditionally include case reports–a short article describing the circumstances, treatment and results of one patient’s case, reported by the doctor who treated the case. This is a model for how public administration practitioners could share experiences for peer-to-peer learning. Here on my slides for a lightning talk on case reports at NECoPA on Friday, November 6: 

You can get more information about NECoPA at and you can register for the conference at 

Annotated Work Instructions: When Official Procedures are Unusable

Here are my slides on Annotated Work Instructions for the NECoPA conference at George Mason University on Nov 6

You can get more information about NECoPA at and you can register for the conference at 

10x Public Administrators

In the tech industry, people speak of “10x” programmers, those who are ten times as productive as average. Who are the 10x public administrators?

The 10 is figurative, since there is no agreed-upon quantification of productivity in programming or public administration. And in both fields productivity includes creativity, rather than grinding through a set process. 10x is meaningful because it puts the focus on what a person can produce in practicing her craft, rather than the schools one graduated from, position in an organization’s hierarchy, years of experience, loyalty to a patron, etc.

One lesson from tech is that to see if someone is 10x, you have to Continue reading “10x Public Administrators”