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Catherine Needham

I know that’s the wrong sort of guerrilla, but I think that’s what most people had in mind when I suggested at a recent event we needed more public service guerrillas. It was a development session for senior public service managers, and we were discussing how it feels to return to work after a training event that fires you up. You’ve been enthused by the benefits of risk-taking, of permission to fail, of working like relationships matter and of taking systems seriously. Then you go back into an organisation that doesn’t really want you to do any of those things, because of the disruptive consequences.

I suggested maybe people need to ‘go guerrilla’ – find small ways to put their learning into practice, enlist others, disrupt at the edges. Later I found Rosemary O’Leary’s fabulously titled article from 2010: Guerrilla Employees: Should Managers Nurture, Tolerate, or Terminate Them? It’s paywalled, but the gist is that what she calls ‘guerrilla government’ is commonplace, as public servants often ‘seek to address perceived wrongs and to influence their organizations’ policies.’

The examples she gives are those of public servants acting clandestinely to promote what they see as the public interest over the organisational interests they are expected to serve. This sort of discretionary behaviour is well-known in public services, as (some) frontline staff work to protect (some) clients from harsh welfare regimes. Similarly, getting innovative approaches to public services off the ground often requires public servants who are willing to give some latitude in relation to formal policies, as in the public service experiments that Cottam describes in Radical Help

Of course, the big issue here is working out when it’s ok to break the rules. As O’Leary notes, ‘it is sometimes difficult to sort out the “ethical” guerrillas from the “unethical” guerrillas, the guided from the misguided.’ Ambiguity will always exist, but she does offer us a checklist of the questions that government guerrillas should ask themselves before starting out: 

  • ‘Am I correct? More than a sincere belief is needed.
  • Is the feared damage immediate, permanent, and irreversible?
  • Are safety and health issues involved? Or is there time for a longer view and a more open strategy?
  • Am I adhering to the rule of law?
  • Is there a legitimate conflict of laws?
  • Is this an area that is purely and legitimately discretionary?
  • Were all reasonable alternative avenues pursued?
  • Would it be more ethical to promote transparency rather than working clandestinely?
  • Would it be more ethical to work with sympathetic legislators before turning to media and outside groups?’
  • Is whistle-blowing a preferable route?

These questions were written for those considering exposing organisational wrongdoing. But I think they lend themselves also to those of us who want to shake up working practices to better match public services to the lives of citizens.

Original source – 21st Century Public Servant

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