How civil servants serve a hated master

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June 30, 2011.    By James Ron, Ottawa Citizen

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 development, 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.

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