The 2016 John Gaus Lecture: The New Guerrilla Government: Are Big Data, Hyper Social Media and Contracting Out Changing the Ethics of Dissent?
by Rosemary O’Leary, University of Kansas
Thank you to the Gaus selection committee, my nominators, and APSA for this honor. I have used this opportunity to reflect on my career interest in “guerrilla government.” “Guerrilla government” is my term for the actions of public servants who work against the wishes—either implicitly or explicitly communicated—of their superiors.
“Fire the bastard!” I can still hear my boss yelling at me, instructing me to get rid of my most creative and passionate employee. I was 28 years old and the director of policy and planning for a state environmental agency, managing a staff of 50. My employee, earnestly dedicated to environmental concerns, had turned into a “guerrilla,” working clandestinely with environmental groups and the media, leaking data, and showing up at night-time public hearings blasting the governor and my boss for “caveman-era water policies.” He was seeking to accomplish outside the organization what he could not accomplish within the organization.
Guerrilla government is a form of dissent that is usually carried out by those who are dissatisfied with the actions of public organizations, programs, or people, but typically, for strategic reasons, choose not to go public with their concerns in whole or in part. A few guerrillas—like Edward Snowden—end up outing themselves as whistle-blowers, but most do not. Rather than acting openly, guerrillas often choose to remain “in the closet,” moving clandestinely behind the scenes, salmon swimming upstream against the current of power. Over the years, I have learned that the motivations driving guerrillas are diverse. Their reasons for acting range from the altruistic (doing the right thing) to the seemingly petty (I was passed over for that promotion). Taken as a whole, their acts are as awe inspiring as saving human lives out of a love of humanity and as trifling as slowing the issuance of a permit out of spite or anger. Guerrillas run the spectrum from anti-establishment liberals to fundamentalist conservatives, from constructive contributors to deviant destroyers. Guerrilla government is about the power of bureaucrats; the tensions between career public servants and political appointees, organization culture, and what it means to act responsibly, ethically, and with integrity in a public setting.