On public comment and public officials — PJ Crowley, Stanley McChrystal and glass jaws

Another high profile public official has fallen by the wayside with the resignation over the weekend of the US State Department’s PJ Crowley for making public, on-the-record comments on his views with respect to the detention of PFC Bradley Manning. When you look at this in the context of the resignation of General Stanley McChrystal for expressing views about the Obama administration in his now-famous Rolling Stone profile, there’s an unfortunate conclusion that might be drawn.

The noises being made about open government and the right for public servants to express opinions seems to have an “only if we like it” caveat.

This begs the question, do our democracies, even in a time of a strongly stated support for open government and Government 2.0, have something of a glass jaw when it comes to criticism?

While for any public servant, the expression of personal and professional views needs to be balanced against those comments’ capacity to bring disrepute to the governments they serve, surely modern democracies ought to be robust and resilient enough to withstand uncomfortable and divergent views from within without the knee-jerk “jump or be pushed” that seems to have taken place in these cases.

As a counterpoint, it was good to see Greg Jericho’s department here in Australia choose to support him when The Australian newspaper ran its little vendetta against him for his insightful, and critical political blogging and insight into media practices during elections. Perhaps the glass-jawedness has geographical limits?

Here in Australia, we’re yet to see a high-ranking public servant at a level equivalent to Crowley (say, APS Deputy Secretary) or McChrystal, especially one with an active social media profile like Crowley, express a view counter to the government of the day. So, I’m in no position to speculate on what might happen. I suspect they are out there on a number of issues. It will be interesting to see what happens when the inevitable day comes.

Why shouldn’t public officials be able to express strong and sometimes uncomfortable views about the policies and practices of the governments they serve? (Notwithstanding the question of professional conduct and appropriateness or otherwise of commenting within your own portfolio. I personally feel the rules in Australia on this are too restrictive, but I do understand why they exist)

What ever happened to “frank and fearless” advice? (I have strong views on this that I won’t go into here)

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David Dean

McChrystal was an active duty military officer. He could have gone to prison. See Article 88, Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Andrew Krzmarzick

My first reaction is to suggest that leaders still need to exercise prudence and political savvy. Being “open” does not mean being able to say or share anything. Sometimes “frank and fearless” needs to happen behind closed doors, and a more measured message is stated publicly. Change is not quick or easy and there will always be martyrs among the first brave folks who plunge into the fray.

Darrel W. Cole

Good post Stephen. But the reality is that politics plays a role. Right or wrong. Even more so at a high level, high-profile the US State Department.

Jenyfer Johnson

It is terribly unfortunate that Freedom of Speech applies only to those who don’t hold public office and must “toe the party line”.

What a sad day for America!

Scott Kearby

The whole idea of team is to have all aligned to a common goal. The time to offer frank and fearless advice is when the goal is being established by the team leaders. Once that is established, then the team players go to work & those that can’t support the team should find another team.

As Lou Holtz says “If you don’t make a total commitment to whatever you are doing then you start looking to bail out the first time the boat starts leaking. It’s tough enough getting the boat to shore with everybody rowing, let alone when a guy stands up and starts putting his life jacket on.”

Kristin Anderson

“Books will speak plain when counsellors blanch.” –Bacon

(Inscription in the Jefferson Building, Library of Congress, 2nd floor, West front, on gilt tablet near window looking out on the Capitol.)

Darrel W. Cole

Good comments generated by this post. I want to say, however, that being a government worker and being a government spokesperson or related title I think are differnet. If you are the spokesperson, you are usually “serve at the pleasure” of the appointed official or elected official. That is surely the case with the US State Dept. It doesn’t mean you don’t have freedom of speech, but as one post said, the time to debate policy is not at presentation or in public.

Stephen Collins

@Darrel, @Scott and @Andrew – as someone who has been a senior public servant (not at PJs level, but not far below it), my post accurately reflects my view. Indeed, the inability to speak my mind in the face of “politics” was one of the deciding factors in me leaving the public sector for the private.

Now, however, I’m in a position – a private consultant embedded in a public agency working again at high levels of the public sector, and in the defence establishment – where I’m in an organisation that functions better because frank views are encouraged from the top down. It’s a more functional, more resilient and more innovative agency. We have people in uniform and civvies, and from several departments working on difficult (or even wicked) problems. Without the ability to be frank, we’d be doomed.

Scott, particularly, being a team player should never mean shutting your mouth and not expressing your views. Down that road lies bad policy, bad law and bad services.

Andrew, it’s the “behind closed doors” mentality that makes the bureaucracy lack agility. We need to be far more public about what we do.

The Australian situation for public servants may be a little different to the US, but mot markedly so in my experience.

Crowley’s comments were tough on DoD, but they demonstrated the worst of glass jaws and completely failed in their responsibility to respond to robust criticism.

Steve Radick

I think it’s only a matter of time – we saw this when private companies first started seeing their employees expressing their own opinions and not toeing the company line too. For a while, these people were getting fired too. I’m sure there were plenty of Microsoft execs wanting to fire Scoble until they realized that his authenticity was proving more effective than their straight marketing slop. Yeah, it was a little riskier, but they finally understood that the benefits outweighed the risks. I’d bet that we’d see something similar start to happen within the government.

Michael Rupert

It’s unfortunate that these comments are being made by public officials while on the job when they were usually reserved for a book or post job memoir/op-ed. When you serve “at the pleasure” you support the boss. If your boss is a jerk by all measures, you just don’t go around saying this to strangers – you keep it in the family. It’s these type of “slips” that help hold back open government, especially when it comes to real-time discussion and engagement. These types of mistakes – whether morally justified or not – force even the most mundane of public comments to be overly vetted. Whether it’s right or wrong doesn’t really matter … it’s how it’s perceived. It’s not perfect, but it is what it is.

Stephen Collins

@Michael, I don’t see PJ’s actions as a “slip” or a mistake. Rather, I see them as robust public debate about the actions of the government. That sort of discussion ought to be possible in a modern, mature democracy where agencies walk the talk of embracing open government.

One person expressing a view on the actions of another agency (regardless of seniority) ought to be something that happens. And embraced.

Certainly, the Code of Conduct that exists for Australian federal public servants explicitly states this as the case.

It might be uncomfortable, but isn’t facing down differences of view and resolving them without complaining to your mother (or the President), a sign or maturity? DoD could as easily have stated “we respect that PJ has a view on the detention of PFC Manning. He’s entitled to that view. However, we don’t agree with him.”

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

I agree with Andy on this issue. When we are discussing a decision to take I am quite open and frank about my thoughts. But when the decision is made I feel it is my job to support the decision and put my best effort into implementing it.

Now in cases where you feel there is a moral or legal issue that was decided wrongly you should privately express your concerns and even refuse to go along with the decision if you feel strongly enough. You can also talk to the inspector general or similar authority. But trying to influence your management through the press is not an effective or ethical practice on your part.

Stephen does raise a good point when you consider the Sherrod case. She was not criticizing any agency decision but was disclosing a personal growth experience. Considering that her management fired her based on a news story rather than taking the time to get her side of the story does have a chilling effect for other public workers. Part of collaboration and engagement is being seen as a real person which many public workers might now be reluctant to do.

Darrel W. Cole

Probably as strongly as Stephen feels, the difference as Mike Rupert and I mention below is”serving at the pleasure of.” You don’t take an appointed government job like that without knowing exactly what the parameters are. If the expectations are that in that role you can publicly criticize another agency’s policies, I’d be surprised. In my experience in that role for a state government, it was not acceptable to be on the record critiquing another agency. If I had, I would expect to be shown the door. A government worker in a different role is another story. And, I agree in those cases they must be allowed to have public opinions different from the agency or appointed/elected policy positions without fear of retribution. However, I think there are rules in place in most state and local governments that restrict being engaged in political activities during work time. I am sure folks here could elaborate if that is the case where they work.

Stephen Collins

There’s some great conversation going on here. Far more than the same post on my blog, where it was originally published!
It’s also bringing out some of the real differences between the way public comment by public servants is addressed in the US and Australia, where I am.
Certainly, on this side of the Pacific, there’s an expectation that public servants are entirely within their rights to comment on portfolio decisions outside their own agencies. Commenting on yur own agency is considered a no go zone.
Strong criticism doesn’t happen often, and the number of people (there are a well known group) is relatively small, but it certainly happens, and it’s certainly public.

Jon P. Bird

I worked with Crowley at the Pentagon in 1997. He was a bit rough with subordinates and since he has reached retirement age, it’s time for him to go!