Mark Hammer

I will repeat the parable of my own experience.

In the autumn of 2011, there was a thread here, in which I made some comments that some folks thought nicely captured an issue in HRM. One of the interns who was handling the Washington Post column on public servants at the time contacted me and asked if I minded being quoted. I looked over the quote, and felt there was nothing about it that was contentious, critical, or relied on privileged information, so I gave her the OK. Unfortunately, we did not discuss HOW I would be quoted, given that both of us were rather new to this game.

About 6 or 7 weeks later, the article appeared on-line, and I was called into my manager’s office. He was trembling in anger. Apparently, the web crawler that engages in perpetual search for news items that mention our organization (which show up every morning for folks in management to read) had found this one, where I was noted as an employee of the organization, and my name and affiliation was put in red boldface by the software so that you couldn’t miss it. Given that it was the first and only time I’ve ever seen us mentioned in the Post, management was rather struck by its occurrence.

The concern and anger, however, was because it looked like I was acting as spokesperson (a role I do not have, and certainly did not pretend to), regarding a matter that is the official mandate of a different agency, and it appeared on a day when we were tabling a big report in Parliament, and many media, senior official, and legislative eyes were turned toward us. The content of the quote was benign, and maybe even banal, but the timing and institutional affiliation made it problematic in the eyes of many.

Unhappily, all of this occurred on a day off when I was at home, busily baking or something, such that when I came in on Monday morning, fan and feces had already met at high velocity. Happily, I was able to contact the intern right away, who speedily and graciously agreed to edit the article to obscure my institutional affiliation. Also, happily, I had the e-mail exchange between us, such that management could see they were not dealing with any deliberate malfeasance on my part. After much grumbling, I was cleared.

The point of the parable is not that one should shut up – I have no regrets about the content of the quote – but rather that the manner in which we exercise “free speech” can sometimes have unexpected side-effects that are legitimately problematic in ways we don’t suspect.

The activity of government has to walk a fine line. As I was noting to Nick Charney on his blog here this morning, on the one hand we foster the citizenry’s trust in us via our willingness to raise concerns in the public interest, and move towards “better”. That can involve some criticism of what is, and what could improve it. But at the same time, part of what fosters citizens’ trust in the bureaucracy is our own expression of confidence in how it does things. Too much doubt on the part of the bureaucracy undermines public trust in the bureaucracy, and there are limits to how well a nation or state can function if trust in the bureaucracy is undermined. Why would you trust the best-before date on food, wear your seatbelt, accept a driver’s license or passport as legitimate ID, or remain indoors when the authorities ask you to for your own protection, if you didn’t trust that the bureaucracy knew what it was doing?

Certainly, they can be exploited and abused, simply for the purpose of reducing managerial headaches. But for the most part, restrictions on public servants’ speech rights are intended to support the institution that we work (in the sense of a paycheque) and strive (in the sense of public service motivation) for. It would be counter-productive to recommend that people simply stop caring enough to have something to say. But if we believe in the purpose of the bureaucracy, and the shared vision of what that bureaucracy does, at its best, then we exercise restraint, and position ourselves neither at the spineless-opinionless-faceless-bureaucrat end of the spectrum, nor at the contemptuous Nick Swanson end of the spectrum, but somewhere appropriately in between.