Leaders urged to manage dissent

New book offers ideas for coping constructively with oppositional employees

A new book, “The Ethics of Dissent: Managing Guerrilla Government,” offers potential solutions to the problem of public employees who are not given freedom to voice their disagreement with their agencies’ policies and who act covertly rather than openly work for change.

The book’s author is Rosemary O’Leary, a professor of public administration at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School. Published by CQ Press (2006), “The Ethics of Dissent” recommends ways that managers can deal constructively with what O’Leary labels “guerrilla employees.”

W. Mark Felt, the second-highest ranking official at the FBI during the Watergate investigation in the early 1970s, is a well-known example of a guerrilla employee. By clandestinely providing information to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Felt was instrumental in the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

O’Leary derived many of her insights about dissent in public agencies from her tenure as a member of NASA’s Return to Flight Task Group, a task force created to study NASA after the accident that destroyed the space shuttle Columbia.

She wrote that one of the challenges that NASA’s new administrator, Mike Griffin, faces is transforming an agency culture that suppresses dissent and spawns guerrilla actions into one that encourages diverse viewpoints and uses them constructively. “At NASA, groups trained in different disciplines routinely dismiss the thinking of others trained differently,” O’Leary said.

Sean O’Keefe, former NASA administrator, said the agency dealt poorly with dissent, but he found NASA’s culture difficult to change. Sometimes diverse opinions and judgments are crushed, but they are more often automatically ignored, he told O’Leary. “The dismissing of other viewpoints happens so quickly and is so subtle that it is very tough to address as a leader,” he added.

O’Leary argues that conflicts between bureaucratic and democratic tendencies are characteristic of public agencies and allow oppositional behavior. The author cites the

often-limited resources political managers have for handling employees who disagree with policies, especially for sorting the ethical from the unethical dissenters or the well-informed from the misguided.

She advises that political appointees entering government for the first time be required to take a two-day training course that communicates the desirability of working with career employees in a more democratic, less bureaucratic manner. “Our first line of defense can no longer be dismissing government guerrillas as mere zealots or troublemakers,” she wrote.

O’Leary also recommends establishing conflict management policies, procedures and practices that encourage managers to respond early to constructive dissent and that make democratic problem-solving part of the organizational culture.

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