Government gets a pat on the back for encouraging internal dissent

Steve Kelman notes that federal agencies have developed a range of valuable techniques for avoiding groupthink.

Shutterstock image (by Ismagilov): Businessman with arrows pointing left and right.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, entitled Healthy Dissent in Washington, Neal Katyal discussed a memo signed by 51 State Department diplomats, released in late June, that criticized administration policy on Syria for being too weak and called for stronger military action against the Syrian regime.

Katyal, a professor at Georgetown Law School and one-time acting Solicitor General during the George W. Bush administration, explained that the memo was fed into the State Department's so-called "Dissent Channel" system, a formal mechanism established in 1971 during the Vietnam War. It allows any State Department employee to voice criticism and requires the department's policy planning office formally to reply. The rules also protect the dissenter against reprisal. Amazingly, the State Department even gives awards each year for those dissenting in the most effective way. (Other agencies take note!)

Katyal notes that an analogous system of "red teams" was established in the CIA after Sept. 11, though it had been used on occasion earlier. The red team's job is to argue against the conventional wisdom about a topic. (The agency thanked its red teams after Osama bin Laden was tracked down.) A much more venerable system typically exists de facto in the higher reaches of the executive branch, where agencies with different viewpoints on an issue that must be resolved by a senior decision-maker advocate back and forth for their respective positions.

Kayal argues in his op-ed that dissent channels represent an application of our constitutional principle of checks and balances among the branches of government, applied inside an executive branch that is immensely larger than it was at the time of the Constitution. Checks and balances apply more to competing power centers that can check one part of the system from always getting its way. I think it is more accurate to see dissent channels as a reflection of the oft-established finding that diversity of inputs improves decision quality by improving the information and arguments available for a decision.

But seeking dissent is also an unnatural act, since most of us prefer being praised and agreed with over being criticized. Not surprisingly, the dominant approach among scholars studying internal government decision-making at senior levels has been to worry about "groupthink," a phrase invented by the psychologist Irving Janis to describe a process where leaders rush to judgment and discourage dissent within a decision-making group.

However, I have recently published a paper called "Tell It Like It is" in the journal Governance, co-authored with Ron Sanders and Gayatri Pandit of Booz Allen, that suggests, consistent with Katyal's observations, that senior decision-makers in the federal government generally take steps in decision-making to guard against groupthink. We did extensive interviews with 20 assistant-secretary-level federal executives to explore how and from what kinds of people they gathered information for making difficult decisions.

We asked the interviewees to report facts, not present self-perceptions that would be very subject to flattering biases. So we did not ask them, "Do you take any steps to encourage dissent?" but rather, "Are there any specific steps you take to increase the diversity of points of view you hear on important decisions you need to make?" We did not ask them how often they changed their minds in the course of decision-making as a result of receiving new information, but rather, "Can you think of any situations where information you learned while you were deciding what course of action to take changed your mind about what you should do in that situation?"

We found that executives had many information sources, more often direct reports and other career civil service appointees rather than personal staff (who are likely to be less independent of and more politically similar to their bosses than direct reports). They also had many sources other than subordinates – only 23 percent of source types cited were subordinates, while 29 percent cited written sources or academic experts, and many consulted peers in other agencies.

Executives also cited many techniques to encourage dissent, including holding off giving their own opinion until the later part of a discussion and offering everybody a last chance to speak at the end. Almost all could name one or more specific examples of changing their minds based on information received during decision-making.

The findings of our governance paper are consistent with those of a 30-year-old study of senior decision-making in 19 international crises, where in 42 percent of the cases the decision-making process was characterized as following at least six out of seven criteria Janis had presented for good decision-making, while another 16 percent showed five of seven.

Openness requires eternal vigilance, both because it is often easier for people lower in an organization to go along than to speak out and because -- despite rules against overt retaliation -- bosses can usually find ways to punish dissenters if they want to. (In one study by Ethan Burris of the University of Texas Business School, employees who agreed with statements such as "I challenge my District Manager to deal with problems around here" or "I give suggestions to my District Manager about how to make [this company] better," got lower performance ratings from their supervisors than those disagreeing with the statements.)

Katyal has given government a pat on the back. Given that it is not easy to maintain a climate that encourages dissent (or at least does not discourage it!), that pat is very well deserved.