Can there be “ethics of dissent”?

The most recent “leaks” involving the National Security Agency by Edward Snowden, the Booze Allen Hamilton employee goes to the heart of one of the debates in Public Administration: the perennial tension between democracy and bureaucracy. Snowden acted in a very democratic manner, calling into question the actions of the very agency that employed him, while retaining a bureaucratic role. Given the discourse surrounding securitization, post 9/11, this should not be as shocking as the media is making it out to be. Despite this, it is still a major PR disaster for the Obama administration, not to mention Booze. While interesting in and of itself, this incident also brings up another related issue that I will deal with here: that of the “ethics of dissent.” Were Snowden’s actions ethical? Did he cross any ethical line by leaking the information that was entrusted to him and if so, what exactly did he do wrong? Should he be tried for treason? What or whom did he betray? If not guilty of any wrong-doing, how are his actions justified? In this short essay, I will try to look at these tensions in the light of what is “ethical,” and in the context of a bureaucracy. I will also look at the tensions between democracy and bureaucracy, in this context.


 Ethics of dissent, an oxymoron?

While the very idea of dissent in a government and bureaucratic set up may seem un-ethical, it is a fact of life and one that must not be ignored. If not for Watergate and several lesser known cases such as the Nevada Wetlands case, three scientists from the US Dept. of Interior, and one from the Nevada Dept. of Wildlife who successfully got a bill passed through Congress to dedicate water to the Nevada Wetlands, legislation that their superiors testified against, much of the wrong-doing by leaders would not have been exposed. Needleman and Needleman (1974) have called these whistleblowers and “ethical renegades” as “guerillas in the bureaucracy.” The problem then, for public administrators and civil servants is: 1. How public administrators can manage dissent, chaos, and guerilla government 2. How are issues related to policy going to be affected by these choices – of being democratic in a bureaucratic setup?

The NSA case also brings up a central issue that has been addressed by scholars such as Prof. Rosemary O’Leary, Distinguished professor of Public Administration at Maxwell School of Syracuse University, who takes a step back and asks “Whose ethics are we talking about”. While in a democratic framework, dissent should not only tolerated, but even encouraged, it becomes problematic if someone who is a government employee does this. She has written extensively about this issue and her book The Ethics of Dissent: Managing Guerilla Government ( O’Leary, 2006) offers insights into how dissent originates and how it can be understood and managed. She argues persuasively, that the creativity of guerillas can be managed effectively, for positive change. O’Leary further points out that this process boils down to creating an organizational culture that fosters dissent, promotes communication and avoids groupthink through diversity of thought and intellectual curiosity.

As she points out, and is evident in many of the cases that one comes across, often there is a perceived wrong that the organization is doing, that the guerillas are trying to address or correct. This may take the form of exposing the wrong-doing to the press, emailing stakeholders, or other means of publicizing the wrongdoing that may lead to a shift in public opinion about the issue, towards what they perceive is right. The question remains: who defines what is right? O’Leary’s argument is that “doing the right thing,” is also linked to what is the meaning of “ethical.” This doesn’t mean there is no space for integrity, and that moral relativism should reign. O’Leary also points out that all the actions of guerillas are not from a sense of idealism. Some of them can be downright petty, as in a case when they were passed over for a promotion (O’Leary, 2010). As she points out to this tension in this poignant para,: “ Guerilla government is about the power of career bureaucrats; the tensions between career bureaucrats and political appointees; and organization culture and what it means to act responsibly, ethically and with integrity as a public servant.”

Whether these guerillas behaved rightly lies in whether they acted in “self-conscious reflection, honesty, self-disciplined ability to resist temptation and act upon beliefs and commitments.”( pg.95). Her insight towards managing dissent is by creating channels where it can be heard, and also of fostering a culture where it is not seen in an antagonistic way.

 She offers us three lenses to look at the issue of guerrilla government: Bureaucratic politics, Organizations and Management and Ethics. Bureaucratic politics literature points out that career public servants make policy, based on their discretion and that Public Administration is a political process ( Appleby, 1949), and that bureaucrats’ views tend to be influenced by the unique culture of their agencies (Halperin and Kanter 1973). On the other hand, organization theorists have argued that organizations both are shaped by and seek to shape the environment in which they operate (Trist, 1965; Katz and Kahn, 1966; March, 1963), where there is a constant give and take, and one in which the organizational boundaries are in flux. O’Leary points out that this perspective is key to understand guerilla government.

The ethics of public servants is the third lens, as O’Leary has pointed out and Waldo’s twelve ethical obligations offer a comprehensive framework in this regard. His key point is that different public servants will be motivated by different motivations and this makes any fixed, iron-clad judgments of the actions of the guerillas difficult. Also, added to this is the question of ambiguity (O’Leary, 2010; Dobel, 1999).

Democracy vs. bureaucracy?

The broader debate that the issue of dissent opens up is also one of the tension between democracy and bureaucracy. While the normative framework for democracy relies on what benefits the greater good, at the interest of the particular organization; the bureaucratic one is slightly more inward looking and asks for more “loyalty,” to the organization. This is a perennial tension that pioneers of Public Administration such as Dr.Dwight Waldo have sought to address. He has pointed out, quite clearly and forcefully in his book The Administrative State that Public Administration is value laden, and not an exact science, as many would like to believe. His quote: “Moral or ethical behavior in public administration is a complicated matter,” is something we should remember.

Content values of bureaucratic ethos:


Content values of democratic ethos
÷  Efficiency

÷  Efficacy

÷  Expertise

÷  Loyalty

÷  Accountability


÷  Regime values

÷  Citizenship

÷  Public interest

÷  Social equity


Fig: Ethical frameworks in public administration (Pugh, 1989[i])


While the bureaucratic model requires one to be obedient and overlook any wrongs or slights, in the interest of the organization; the democratic model seeks to assert the right to speak out, in public interest, as needed. One may never be able to find the right mix between the right amount of democracy and bureaucracy, but there can be an attempt to find a balance. As Dr.Dwight Waldo, the doyen of Public Administration once said:” ‘I accept democracy as desirable…I accept bureaucracy as not so much desirable as necessary.’

                In terms of actual ways to manage guerilla government, O’Leary’s (2006) suggestions may be helpful. She says that the seasoned managers she interviewed for her book offered her the following tips:

  1. Create an organization that accepts, welcomes and encourages candid dialogue and debate. Create a culture of questioning attitude by encouraging staff to challenge the assumptions and actions of the organization
  2. Listen
  3. Understand the organization both formally and informally
  4. Separate the people from the problem
  5. Create multiple channels for dissent
  6. Create dissent boundaries and know when to stop



Pugh, D. Professionalism in Public Administration: Problems, Perspectives, and the Role of ASPA. American Society for Public Admin.

Dobel, J.Patrick. 1999. Public Integrity. Baltimore. Johns Hopkins Uni press.

Katz, Daniel and Robert L.Kahn. 1978. The Social Psychology of Organizations. 2nd ed. NY: Wiley

Waldo, Dwight. 1988. The enterprise of public administration: A Summary view. Novato, CA: Chandler and Sharp.

O’Leary Rosemary.2010. Guerilla Employees: Should managers Nurture, Tolerate or Terminate them?, Public Administration Review

O’Leary Rosemary. 2006. The Ethics of Dissent: Managing Guerilla Employees. Washington D.C. CQ Press

0 responses to “Can there be “ethics of dissent”?”

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