Image Credit: Tibor Janosi Mozes

Learning the Hard Way

Government vs. Bureaucracy

About a year ago, Daniel Hemel presciently laid out: “Even where a President Trump would have constitutional and statutory authority to pursue his policies via executive action, he might not have the bureaucratic buy-in necessary to carry those policies through.”

Aside from individuals with strong political differences, why would federal employees risk their livelihood participating in what now has become a widely reported phenomenon of resistance? Most government workers are driven by their “commitment to the job and its public importance, expectations by peers, and professional standards,” but there is nothing inconsistent with these values and implementing policy in good faith; it is not enough to motivate moderate or apolitical career bureaucrats to stand against the executive branch. Instead of being a new trend of rogue employees, this reticence has deeper institutional roots and is characteristic of government bureaucracies¹.

At stake for agencies is losing not just influence, but also autonomy and control to political operatives who are more concerned with bolstering ideological narratives than preventing the real-life consequences of poorly implemented laws. Still, few agencies have institutionalized a way to challenge policy like the State Department’s Dissent Channel. For most workers, the options available to correct or provide feedback on wrongheaded proposals are all unsanctioned, yet hardly unprecedented nor unusual. At stake is the erosion of professionalism, the civil servant’s understanding that the price for membership in our country’s institutions is the burden of accountability and the expectation of stewardship of the public trust and resources. To protect institutionalized professional accountability² and maintain “sufficient discretion to get the job done³,” federal employees, even those who voted for Trump, will find ways to circumvent orders inconsistent with their organization’s best judgement and will undermine policies that conflict with the institutional ethical standards they embody.

39 CFR Appendix A to Part 3000, Code of Ethics For Government Service

The leaks reported by the media could fit multiple motivations, but considering the high number of instances and the ameliorating effects of exposing initiatives before they are turned into law, reports of the leaks signal that individuals are taking calculated risks to fix and prevent policies rather than settling scores or stroking their own ego. These individuals pass the baton to opposition groups and other social movements, who without an official means for co-governance, express their discontent through protest and civil unrest. With few checks in the current single-party-control government, the leaks, media attention, protests, and lawsuits result in societal accountability⁴ that demands competency in decision-making and running of the government and fairness in implementing policy. It might be too soon to conclude that we will always have the current energized dynamism in our civil discourse. However, continued action rooted in professional accountability and the increasing intensity of societal accountability will make it clear to the Trump administration that they must first consider: If we propose this, how will they react?⁵ For signs of success, look for the most radical and unsavoury policy ideas to be inhibited while bringing self-awareness to an administration that severely needs it.


  1. “Control of the bureaucracy must be seen as a systemic matter: the president, House, and Senate collectively control the bureaucracy. It is a matter of joint custody, and this means that no one institution will necessarily like the bureaucratic autonomy, or the bureaucratic policies, that may result. But in the nature of our separation-of-power system of government, no one institution may be able to do much about it.” (Quote edited for clarity) — Hammond, T. H., & Knott, J. H. (1996). Who controls the bureaucracy?
  2. “Professional accountability occurs where administrators perceive a duty to adhere to the standards of professional or expert groups of which they are a member.” — Sinclair, A. (1995). The chameleon of accountability
    “Thus, professional accountability is characterized by placement of control over organizational activities in the hands of the employee with the expertise or special skills to get the job done” — Romzek, B. S., & Dubnick, M. J. (1987): Accountability in the public sector
  3. Shifting away from professional accountability to other forms can have disastrous consequences: “To the extent that these accountability mechanisms were ill-suited to the technical nature of NASA’s agency task, they comprised a major factor in the Challenger tragedy. In more prescriptive terms, if the professional accountability system had been given at least equal weight in the decision-making process, the decision to launch would probably not have been made on that cold January morning.” — Romzek, B. S., & Dubnick, M. J. (1987): Accountability in the public sector
  4. “Societal mechanisms appear to be most effective where social mobilization strategies interact with legal actions and media exposure. The media observe and report about the organization and mobilization of civil society; civil society informs and is informed by the media, and, at the same time, it activates legal actions and forces state institutions to take up once-neglected problems.” — Smulovitz, C., & Peruzzotti, E. (2000): Societal Accountability in Latin America
  5. “Accountability is a critical rule and a norm enforcement mechanism — the social psychological link between individual decision-makers on the one hand and social systems on the other. Expectations of accountability are an implicit or explicit constraint on virtually everything people do (‘If I do this, how will others react?’).” — Tetlock, P. E. (1992). The Impact of Accountability on Judgement and Choice
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