Dear Bureaucrat, My Job Wants me to Lie

Dear Bureaucrat,

I supervise a procurement team. Every month, I’m supposed to sign a form acknowledging “responsibility to authorize and approve only essential obligations and expenditures.” But I can’t know whether each item we purchase is essential. Many of them are highly technical. I told the person in finance who collects the forms that I can’t judge whether any purchase is essential, but she said every account manager needs to sign the form and that includes me. I talked to my boss, and he told me to work it out with finance. I don’t like making these false certifications. It’s not ethical and I’m afraid it sets me up to catch the blame if it turns out one of the technical managers is requisitioning things we don’t need.

Signed,
George “Cannot Tell a Lie” W.

 

Dear George,

You are not alone. Government work often pressures us to make certifications that we cannot know the truth of, or that we know are false. Wong and Gerras did a frightening study of the need for Army officers to lie routinely. For example, they found commanders were required to certify their troops completed 297 days of mandatory training, when only 256 days were available for training.

The pressure to certify something you cannot know is more than an affront to your personal ethics. It is an excuse for your agency to not apply real controls that would prevent unnecessary purchases. It is also one more brick in building an agency culture where dishonesty is viewed as normal and necessary.

So what can you do? There’s the idealistic way, the popular way, or the subversive way…

Read the rest of the answer in Federal Times at https://www.federaltimes.com/your-career/the-bureaucrat/2019/03/07/dear-bureaucrat-my-job-wants-me-to-lie/

Send your question to DearBureaucrat@PubAdmin.org

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Increasing Citizen Engagement and Access to Information, Part 3

3. Don’t Panic about Guerrilla Government

Among the citizens who are most knowledgeable about an agency’s issues, and likely to care about them, are the agency’s own employees. In the past, government employees engaging as private citizens were viewed as a problem, so-called “guerrilla government”.[1] But technology is making off-the-clock engagement by government employees both inevitable and productive.

It is inevitable because technology makes it easy for government workers to engage across the silos of agency hierarchies. Email lists and on-line forums link workers across government who specialize in accessibility for disabled persons, data science, and any number of other functions.[2] This encourages workers to identify with the mission of their professional specialty, not only the wishes of their supervisors. Technology also facilitates engagement among geographically dispersed workers. In June 2016, 51 State Department diplomats stationed around the world issued a joint memo dissenting from U.S. policy in Syria. While dissent memos in the State Department are not new, the number of employees who collaborated on this one was unprecedented, and gave it more influence.[3]

Engagement by government workers outside their jobs is productive in several ways. They can create innovations on their own time that official channels won’t. For example, the database that allows searching Inspector General reports across federal agencies is not a government project. It is a volunteer project led by a government employee on his own time.[4]

Workers engaging outside their jobs can make an agency more attractive to employees, potential employees, and constituencies. The General Services Administration’s “18F” innovation office is noted for its employees’ copious interactions with the broader technology community through both official and personal blogs, tweets, conference participation, etc. Not all the unofficial communication will be on-message from the agency’s standpoint, but the overall result is to encourage talented workers to join and stay, and to improve the public’s perception of the office.

A government leader observing engagement outside the job by her agency’s employees has some necessary concerns. Employees’ obligation to protect legitimately secret information must be made clear and enforced for their outside engagement just as when they are working. Employees should not give the impression they are speaking for the agency when they are not. But a government leader should not fight a doomed rear-guard action trying to suppress the fact that some citizens have different views than her agency’s official position, even some citizens who work at the agency.

Conclusion

Technology is making the walls between government and citizens more porous. Information flows both ways through the countless channels that the internet enables. For a government official, this is an opportunity to overcome entrenched practices and make her agency more effective and efficient. The risky strategy is to try to hold off disruptive improvement, like taxi monopolies trying to hold off Uber. That strategy would have a government leader sacrifice performance improvements for an illusion of control.

Footnotes

[1] Rosemary O’Leary, The Ethics of Dissent: Managing Guerrilla Government (CQ Press, 2006).

[2] An incomplete list is at digitalgov, “Communities,” DigitalGov, November 17, 2013, https://www.digitalgov.gov/communities/.

[3] Mark Landler, “51 U.S. Diplomats Urge Strikes Against Assad in Syria,” The New York Times, June 16, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/17/world/middleeast/syria-assad-obama-airstrikes-diplomats-memo.html.

[4] Eric Mill, “Opening up Government Reports through Teamwork and Open Data,” OpenGov Voices, November 7, 2014, http://sunlightfoundation.com/blog/2014/11/07/opengov-voices-opening-up-government-reports-through-teamwork-and-open-data/.

[You can find the complete paper from which this excerpt was drawn at https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/hws4f/ ]

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

Click for PDF, doi:10.13140/RG.2.1.1067.2803

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 Continue reading “Beyond Guerrilla Government: Intrapreneurs, Cuff Systems, Side Projects and Hacks”