In a recent Comment a reader suggested: “….readers might like to hear your perspective on the value and difficulties of “sticking your neck out” on the job, particularly from within federal agencies.” I agreed to respond, so here goes. These are my views, and I know there will a range of answers to this request from other active or retired Feds. I hope they will respond as well.
My first experience as a staff person in the Federal Government was in 1974 when I came to Washington as an APS Congressional Fellow and served as Staff Scientist for the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee. I quickly learned my first lesson about ‘sticking one’s neck out’ by observing what happened to the Committee’s Senior Counsel when he went to Sandusky, Ohio on Committeee business and managed to get his picture in the local paper. Senator Magnuson, the Committee Chair, raked him over the coals and said clearly: “If you want to get your picture in the paper get elected”. Sen. Magnuson also forbade any travel by Committee staff for 30 days.
Luckily, aside from sensitivity about pictures in the paper, the Committee was ‘entrepreneurial’ in the sense that staff were given lots of leeway to do things for which they were held closely accountable. This contrasted with the style of some other Senate Committees that were managed more tightly by the members, with less staff discretion. I have always liked the Commerce Committee approach and have used it throughout my government career.
To answer the question more directly I believe, strongly, that staff are obligated to tell their bosses what they believe or else they are not doing their job. Smart managers also should want to hear the unvarnished truth from staff if they are to be most effective in carrying out their jobs. Unfortunately, all too often that is not the way it works. In my experience most people play it safe by not sticking their necks out if they suspect that their bosses really don’t want to hear what they have to say, and too many bosses are not secure enough to be open to suggestions without feeling threatened. That’s why when I found people who were willing to stick their necks out I grabbed them as quickly as I could (they are not common) and insisted upon their promise to provide honest feedback before hiring them.
There is one caveat that I will put forward, one that I believe is essential to survival in any relationship, especially in bureaucratic organizations like the federal government. Pick your fights carefully. Not every issue is worth going to the mattresses for, and if everything from you becomes problematic then you won’t have an impact when you really want it. Credibility and trust are important and are earned .
This may or may not answer the question posed at the beginning of this blog, and I look forward to feedback. What say you all?