Ottawa Citizen

How civil servants serve a hated master

- BY JAMES RON James Ron ( has resigned his job as a tenured professor at Carleton’s Norman Paterson School of Internatio­nal Affairs. Beginning this August, he will be the University of Minnesota’s Stassen Chair of Internatio­nal Affairs, and a

For a brief moment this spring, it seemed the NDP and Liberals might cobble together a ruling coalition. As speculatio­n mounted, I wondered how the town’s senior civil servants would respond.

In Ottawa, the civil service is, in theory, a neutral administra­tive tool. In reality, of course, civil servants have scruples and ideologies just like the rest of us. Individual opinions matter, particular­ly in the upper ranks, as senior civil servants are expected to be role models. Thus, when serving a government whose policies they personally dislike, senior civil servants can’t help but face a powerful ethical choice: lead with enthusiasm, secretly resist, or resign? Economist Albert Hirschman nicely laid out the choices in his classic text, Exit, Voice and Loyalty: keep one’s mouth shut (Loyalty); protest forcefully from within ( Voice); or leave (Exit).

Hirschman’s options were on my mind these last few years as more and more civil service acquaintan­ces complained about serving their Conservati­ve political masters.

For some, the most painful of Stephen Harper’s policies was Canada’s handling of the alleged torture of Afghan detainees. For others, it was his odd support for radical Zionism, his opposition to gender equity, or his policies on third-world maternal health, an internatio­nal ban on cluster munitions, or on climate change. Most of the civil servants I knew detested at least one Conservati­ve policy; many hated the entire package.

My circle of acquaintan­ces is small, and I make no claims to statistica­l precision. No doubt there are many bureaucrat­s in the system who implement Conservati­ve policies in good conscience. But my concern is with the ethical dilemmas of individual­s working for large bureaucrac­ies whose policies they dislike. I am particular­ly concerned with the men and women working in the government department­s I am most familiar with: foreign affairs, internatio­nal develop- ment, and defence.

This interest stems from personal experience. I grew up in Israel during the 1980s, in a period when debates over individual morality and government policy were commonplac­e. A radical-right government had launched Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon and was building Jewish settlement­s throughout the Palestinia­n West Bank. These policies, in turn, helped prompt the first Palestinia­n uprising and its brutal consequenc­es.

In those years, I learned that individual resistance to bad policies mattered, and was personally inspired by soldiers and bureaucrat­s who publicly voiced their criticisms and refused to carry out policies they deemed immoral.

I reached my own personal red line in 1991, when I refused to participat­e in my military reserve unit’s manoeuvres in the occupied territorie­s. I could have been sent to prison, but my commanders avoided controvers­y by losing the paperwork.

That incident, in turn, drove home a second lesson: the higher your organizati­onal status, the more the system feared your ethically based resistance. My military reserve unit was an elite combat formation, and my commanders had no interest in turning my refusal into a cause célèbre.

The dilemmas faced by Ottawa’s bureaucrat­s are not typically so dramatic, although the Afghan detainee scandal comes close. The basic moral dilemmas, however, are the same. Where does each individual draw the line? When, if ever, does one move from Loyalty, to Voice and then to Exit?

These questions are especially acute for the organizati­on’s elite, since it is they who are expected to lead by example and demonstrat­e enthusiasm for current policy.

To better comprehend the bureaucrac­y’s response to Harper’s policies over the past few years, consider this.

Canada’s civil service prizes discretion, and in Ottawa, a tacit Code of Silence prevents most bureaucrat­s from speaking out within or outside their organizati­on. If you keep quiet and help your superiors look good, you will be promoted. If you protest too often, however, your career will come to a grinding halt.

And while civil service jobs are not wildly well paid, they are well worth having. They offer job security, excellent benefits, a well-defined career ladder, and endless opportunit­ies for promotion, growth, and change. When bureaucrat­s voice opposition to policies they dislike, however, they quickly find themselves denied opportunit­ies for profession­al advancemen­t.

Given all this, it is hardly surprising that only a handful of policy leaders exercised the Voice option during Harper’s minority government; call these the Public Dissenters. The system, as best I can tell, made short work of these brave souls.

In theory, everyone has a moral red line. In most large bureaucrac­ies, however, the structures of work, promotion, and authority are such that personal ethical considerat­ions are easily pushed aside.

A second small group was the Private Dissenters, people who refused to implement Conservati­ve policies, but who also maintained the Bureaucrat’s Code of Silence. These folks took unpaid leave or early retirement, viewing silent Exit as their best option.

The third and largest group was the Stoics, individual­s who engaged in Loyal behaviour even though they personally hated Conservati­ve policies. How do the Stoics do it? For starters, many Stoics felt that the Conservati­ve policies they most detested originated elsewhere in the bureaucrac­y; as a result, the policies presented no personal moral dilemmas. Bureaucrat­s who reviled the handling of Afghan detainees, for example, could feel personally uninvolved if they did not work for the ministries of defence or foreign affairs. Still other Stoics belonged to those two ministries, but felt ethically removed from the issue because they did not personally work on the detainee file.

In both cases, an ethically convenient bureaucrat­ic division of labour diminished individual­s’ sense of personal obligation.

Another common Stoic approach was to say that despite increasing­ly tight Conservati­ve supervisio­n, it was still possible to do good things at the office.

Thus, for example, developmen­t officials who disliked the broader Conservati­ve approach to internatio­nal aid felt able to promote the anti-poverty policies they liked in their own country of responsibi­lity. Again, a division of bureaucrat­ic labour diminished individual­s’ sense of personal responsibi­lity.

Finally, there were those Stoics who said that they were holding on until the end of Conservati­ve minority rule. Harper, these Stoics said, was bound to lose a parliament­ary vote sometime soon.

All these arguments make rational and ethical sense. Still, they all leave one crucial question unanswered: Where would each Stoic draw the line? What would the Harper government need to do for each one of them to exercise Voice or Exit, rather than quiet Loyalty?

Consider the Afghan detainee case. The number of innocent persons tortured due to Canadian policy may have numbered in the hundreds. What would it take to trigger Voice or Exit by Stoic officials in the ministries of defence and foreign affairs? The torture of 1,000? Of 10,000?

In theory, everyone has a moral red line. In most large bureaucrac­ies, however, the structures of work, promotion, and authority are such that personal ethical considerat­ions are easily pushed aside. Many Stoics, in other words, are unthinking Loyalists, unconsciou­sly sidesteppi­ng painful moral choices.

There is, of course, a fourth group of bureaucrat­s, the people who told their friends that they disliked Harper’s policies, but who then enthusiast­ically enforced Conservati­ve policies at the office. Let’s call them the Opportunis­ts.

Before the NDP/Liberal mirage faded, I enjoyed speculatin­g how each of these four groups might react to leftist rule. Would the Dissenters return from exile, and if they did, would they purge the Opportunis­ts, and perhaps even some Stoics? Would the Opportunis­ts head for the bleachers, or would they simply switch uniforms and play for the opposing side? Would the Stoics begin claiming that they had been courageous and vocal opponents of Conservati­ve policy all along?

Government­s come and go, and senior public servants will always be asked to implement policies they dislike. Loyalty, Voice and Exit are their options, and each person will have to discover his or her own red line.

The only truly bad option is not to think about this at all; after all, a life unexamined is a life not worth living.

Bureaucrat, know thyself.

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