“Don’t be evil.” That preface to Google’s code of conduct contains a powerful insight into the nature of organizations. Big organizations have the capacity to bring bad behavior to scale. History has lots of examples of this in both corporations and governments -- especially in governments.
This is the central theme of Unmasking Administrative Evil, a book by Guy Adams and Danny Balfour published a few years ago. While the Holocaust is arguably one of the most extreme cases of administrative evil, I can think of lots of other examples, from the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II to Jim Crow laws and, more recently, the Flint water crisis.
Guarding against administrative evil is an important part of the job for every government leader. “Our reluctance to recognize the importance of administrative evil as part of the identity and practice of public administration and public policy,” Adams and Balfour write, “reinforces its continuing influence and increases the possibility of future acts of dehumanization and destruction.” And, as was decided at the Nuremberg trials, arguing that you were merely following orders is not an adequate defense.
This poses a real dilemma for government managers. On the one hand, they want to effectively oppose or thwart directives from above that they regard as evil. But they also need the people who report to them to do as they are directed. A counterpoint to Unmasking Administrative Evil is the work of University of Kansas professor Rosemary O’Leary, summarized in the title of a lecture she gave last year to the American Political Science Association: “The New Guerrilla Government: Are Big Data, Hyper Social Media and Contracting Out Changing the Ethics of Dissent?” O’Leary cites a number of examples of guerrilla government, including the leaks of national security documents by Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, to assert that ever-evolving modern technologies are giving individuals more power to embarrass or damage an organization.
There’s a lot that public administrators can do. To begin with, most government reformers tend to think of corruption narrowly, as theft of public funds. There are typically far fewer controls for other forms of misbehavior, such as detecting and preventing improper use of force by police departments. Further, as O’Leary convincingly argues, there need to be far more opportunities for dissent within public organizations. The vast majority of the public managers she interviewed thought that “dissent, when managed properly, is not only positive, but also essential to a healthy organization.” And there needs to be far more protection for whistleblowers.
With power comes responsibility and risk. Public officials should recognize the risks. They should encourage and listen to dissent. And they could do worse than adopt the Google motto.