Speak No Evil

The only thing more dangerous in government than trying to convey bad news up the hierarchy is going public with it.

Nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news. But in the career federal service, the job comes with the territory. While higher-ups talk of dreams, visions and grand plans, career executives, managers and employees must deal with the hard work of implementation-and point out when objectives are based on faulty data, lack sufficient resources or simply will fail to achieve desired results.

That's never an easy task. But it's becoming more and more difficult, because across government, a shoot-the-messenger attitude is beginning to prevail when it comes to challenging the conventional wisdom. The trend has dangerous consequences.

The most prominent recent example involves intelligence about weapons of mass destruction programs in Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

In the January/February issue of our sister publication, The Atlantic Monthly, Kenneth M. Pollack, who served on the National Security Council in the Clinton administration, provides a detailed account of intelligence efforts to determine the nature of Iraq's WMD programs prior to last year's U.S.-led invasion of the country. The intelligence community, he admits, greatly overestimated Iraq's capability to develop and deploy such weapons- especially nuclear weapons. Indeed, such analysis led Pollack to write a book, The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq (Random House, 2002).

But that wasn't the only problem. Throughout the spring and fall of 2002 and well into 2003, Pollack received numerous complaints from friends and colleagues about how Bush administration officials were dealing with intelligence that didn't conform to the party line. "According to them," Pollack writes, "many administration officials reacted strongly, negatively and aggressively when presented with information or analysis that contradicted what they already believed about Iraq."

Bush officials repeatedly asked intelligence analysts to justify their work, gave great credence to dubious sources and demanded extensive, time-consuming studies of extraneous reports, such as the writings of conservative newspaper columnists. The administration eventually set up an organization in the Pentagon, the Office of Special Plans, to conduct its own analyses of Iraq intelligence.

Congressional and CIA investigators have concluded that analysts did not alter any of their findings as a result of political pressure. Nevertheless, it seems clear that dissent from the party line was at least discouraged.

Likewise, the space shuttle Columbia Accident Investigation Board determined last year that NASA's "culture of bureaucratic accountability" put "allegiance to hierarchy and procedure" ahead of challenges to accepted conclusions by technical experts. After the foam-debris strike during the Columbia launch, engineers at several NASA centers "showed initiative and jumped on the problem without direction from above," the board found. But the engineers' request for imagery from the Defense Department to determine the extent of damage to the shuttle was turned down because they hadn't shown a "mandatory need" for the information and hadn't run their request through the proper channels.

"For those with lesser standing, the requirement for data was stringent and inhibiting, which resulted in information that warned of danger not being passed up the chain of command," the board concluded.

The only thing more dangerous in government than trying to convey bad news up the hierarchy is going public with it. Just ask Teresa Chambers, the Park Police chief suspended late last year for telling a Washington Post reporter that the agency didn't have the resources to do its job.

National Park Service Deputy Director Donald Murphy charged Chambers with a host of violations, including improper disclosure of budget deliberations, failure to carry out a supervisor's instructions and-the classic offense-not following the chain of command.

It's clear that the crux of the issue was not the substance of Chambers' remarks. Rather it was, as Murphy said in a voicemail to Chambers prior to her suspension, that "the messages that you are sending out are not consistent with the department's message and what we want to be saying on our budgeting for the U.S. Park Police."

It would be easy to point fingers and say the increasing lack of tolerance for dissent in government is the fault of the Bush administration's political leadership. But the problem has been building for years and-remember, in the case of NASA-the problems that stifled disagreement had little to do with politics and much to do with an organizational culture in which "failure is not an option."

In this era of ballooning budget deficits, increased media scrutiny and decreased public patience for poor performance by federal agencies, it takes a lot of courage to stand up and challenge the conventional wisdom. But if those in the career federal service are serious about their obligation to be public servants as well as civil servants, they must.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
X CLOSE Don't show again

Like us on Facebook