Public Servants, Prepare for War

One thing I learned in economics graduate school is the doctrine of revealed preference, which recommends evaluating people on the basis of the choices they make rather than the things they say. That doctrine is turning out to be particularly relevant in understanding Donald Trump, who will say anything on any side of any issue. But his personnel choices clearly indicate he is siding with the most conservative, even reactionary elements of the Republican Party. He has appointed a climate change denier as Administrator of the EPA and an opponent of labor as Secretary of Labor. He appears to be putting in place a team that will attempt to dismantle the US’s already minimal social safety net.

What can career public servants in these, and likely other, departments do when the Secretary and other political appointees to follow oppose the department’s mission and ignore the science on which that mission is based? The humorists Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, creators of Yes Minister, described this situation as a confrontation between the political will and the bureaucratic won’t. But this time it is serious.

Based on his election campaign, Donald Trump has set a tone for his Administration that will be disrespectful of the law and ignorant or contemptuous of the facts that underlie public policy. Canadians recently experienced what was referred to as the Harper Government’s “faith-based” public policy — in contrast to science-based or evidence-based public policy. The comparable term post-truth has entered the American lexicon. Cabinet secretaries may well reflect the President’s post-truth mindset and modus operandi.

On Inauguration Day, Obama’s political appointees will resign, leaving only career public servants in place. It may be some time before Trump’s cabinet secretaries are confirmed and even longer until their teams of political appointees are in place. This presents career public servants with an opportunity to make their voices heard.

Public servants have a responsibility to be loyal to the administration, to give honest advice, and to administer the law efficiently and impartially. Giving honest advice will require them to point out the problems with the Trump Administration’s plans. Public servants will likely have good grounds for opposing the initiatives that will be forthcoming from the Trump Administration. Let me suggest five things they could do.

First, in their confidential briefings to cabinet secretaries and other political appointees, explaining – as clearly, objectively, and eloquently as possible – the analysis that disputes initiatives to weaken environmental protection and workers’ protection. This has traditionally been referred to as giving advice without fear or favor, or speaking truth to power.

Second, doing their utmost to ensure quality service to citizens. They can expect that one way the Trump Administration will attempt to undermine government departments and reduce their public support is to use budget cuts and other discretionary decisions to reduce service quality.

Third, if ordered to break the law, they should refuse to do so.

Fourth, if the situation becomes intolerable consider resigning on principle. This is easy to do if you are independently wealthy. The vast majority of people aren’t. An alternative is to find another potential employer – another government, non-profit, or academic institution – to move to if you can no longer with integrity stay in the federal government.

Here is an example of a resignation on principle over a matter of what appears to have been inside baseball, but really wasn’t. The Canadian census has a short questionnaire that 80 percent of the population receive and a long questionnaire that the other 20 percent receive. Traditionally, both were compulsory. In 2011, the Harper Government for ideological reasons made the long questionnaire voluntary, which greatly reduced its validity. The head of Statistics Canada, Munir Sheikh, resigned on principle. His resignation and subsequent advocacy dramatized the issue, and one of the first things the Trudeau Government did, after it was elected, was to restore the compulsory long questionnaire (with wide and strong approval for this return to evidence-based government).

Fifth and finally there is the controversial option of covertly leaking documents. Leaking is generally illegal and, in the area of national security, recipients of leaks are obligated by law to reveal their sources. I am not advocating breaking the law. Public servants considering whether to leak would want to compare the potential benefits of leaking in terms of protecting the public interest with the likely personal cost of getting caught multiplied by its probability.

These will be interesting times in Washington in the full Chinese sense of the term. Career public servants will also be combatants and many will be preparing for full-out bureaucratic warfare.

2 Responses to “Public Servants, Prepare for War”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe by email

If you are interested in my weekly blog posts about politics and political narrative, as well as updates about my research and teaching, please enter your email address below to receive a free subscription.


Previous Posts