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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on March 12, 2006
Review by H. George Frederickson, Distinguished Professor, University of Kansas, published in PA TIMES, February, 2006, page 11

Sixty-five years ago Herman Finer and Carl Friedrich framed one of the classic debates in public administration-Finer arguing that democracy is dependent on tight legalistic controls over bureaucracy, Friedrich countering that effective administration requires bureaucratic expertise and the discretion to apply that expertise. Over the years public administrators have inclined rather strongly in the direction of Friedrich's position, favoring granting a broad range of discretion to bureaucrats. These days the positions of Finer and Friedrich tend to be debated in terms of multiple forms of accountability: accountability to elected officials, the constitution and the laws, one's public service profession, the greater good, one's conscience-and public administrators still favor Friedrich's position believing they should have the discretion to make tough choices and to be held accountable for those choices.

This week a vivid description of the extremes of the long-standing debate over what ought to be the proper range of administrative discretion has reached my desk; Rosemary O'Leary's splendid new book The Ethics of Dissent: Managing Guerrilla Government (Washington, D. C.: CQ Press, 2006). Although the title, The Ethics of Dissent, is lofty and grand, it is the subtitle, Managing Guerrilla Government, that best describes what the book is all about. Guerrilla government is O'Leary's term for "the actions of career public servants who work against the wishes-either implicitly or explicitly communicated-of their superiors. Guerrilla government is a form of dissent typically carried out by those who are dissatisfied with the actions of public organizations, programs, or people but who typically, for strategic reasons, choose not to go public with their concerns. . ." (p. xi). Based on more than three dozen actual cases-the cases are mostly rather brief first-person accounts and stories-which include the names of the guerrillas, what they did, and how they did it, O'Leary provides a powerful and very readable empirical base for her findings and generalizations.

O'Leary's guerrillas include Mark Felt, the "Deep Throat" of Watergate fame and Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat stationed in Lithuania, who, in the summer of 1940, against the policies of the Japanese government, issued visas to over 10,000 Jews, enabling them to escape the Holocaust. Unlike Felt and Sugihara and other high-profile guerrillas, most of O'Leary's guerrillas are garden variety nameless and faceless civil servants. There are more bureaucratic guerrillas than one might think, and guerrilla warfare in the bureaucratic trenches is far more common than one might think. Indeed, "guerrilla government happens all the time in the everyday, often mundane world of bureaucracy. Sometimes guerrillas fail to correct superiors' mistakes and let them fall. Sometimes guerrillas fail to implement orders they think are unfair. At times guerrilla government manifests itself as the ghostwriting of letters and testimony for interest groups. At other times it may mean forging secret links with nongovernmental organizations. It may mean leaking information to the news media. There are as many variations of guerrilla government as there are variations in guerrillas" (p. 3). The guerrilla repertoire also includes these familiar tactics: going over your supervisor's head, and over that supervisor's head, and so forth; filing a lawsuit; obeying in public, disobeying in private; cultivating the media; leaking to the media; creating or arrange for the creation of documentaries, scientific studies, and scientific papers that support a particular position; forging links with professional, nongovernmental, and citizen organizations; lobbying; testifying; contacting the White House of the State House; stalling; holding clandestine meetings; tying your cause to a crisis or event; raising funds. It is clear that guerrilla government is not bean-bag or tiddly-winks; it is, instead, a rough game played by tough policy partisans.

As O'Leary puts it, "all guerrilla activity is not created equally." She describes, for example, the guerrilla who had a long-running battle with superiors that began when a consultant refused a reimbursement for a five-dollar hamburger and the guerrilla then "waged a clandestine war to have the consultant barred from future state contracts and his supervisor fired." But most of O'Leary's cases are about serious matters associated with policy differences, questions of fairness, and interpretations of laws and regulations and how they should be implemented. She reports the results of a survey of Fellows of the National Academy of Public Administration who almost unanimously agreed that "dissent, when managed properly, was not only positive but essential to a healthy organization" (p. 104). Sean O'Keefe, the former administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, indicated to O'Leary that "embracing dissent means inviting diversity of opinion from the people around you. My first rule is to never surround myself with people who are just like me. My second rule is always to insist upon someone voicing the dissenting opinion" (p. 104). At their best, guerrillas are the canaries of government, the early warning system. "Instead of discussing guerrillas as problematic and plotting how to get rid of them, we can think of guerrillas as messengers coming to tell a manager something important about the organization, the policies, and the way of operation. . . . The real challenge is to see if we can listen to the guerrillas' messages, sift through the canaries and the zealots, really hear them and take them to heart, that is, make the connection to the broader reality of public management and policy challenges at hand more fully" (pp. 104-108).

O'Leary's primary findings and conclusions are grounded in a synthesis of her cases and are these: (1) guerrilla government is here to stay; (2) guerrillas can do it to you in ways you will never know; (3) all guerrilla activity is not created equal; (4) most public organizations are inadequately equipped to deal effectively with guerrilla government; (5) the tensions inherent in guerrilla government will never be resolved. These findings will disappoint those looking for breakthroughs or easy answers, but they are a clear-eyed and accurate description of how bureaucratic dissent actually works.

Having made these findings and conclusions, O'Leary turned to the pros for advice. In summary form that advice is: (1) create an organizational culture that accepts, welcomes, and encourages candid dialogue and debate; (2) listen; (3) understand the formal and informal organization; (4) separate the people from the problem; (5) create multiple channels for dissent; (6) create dissent boundaries and know when to stop. Based on her survey of the pros, O'Leary's advice is at once simple and profound. Welcoming dissent, listening, separating people from problems, and allowing multiple dissent channels may be simple and profound, but are not easy for managers. They are skills that must be learned and are most often learned by experience, a notoriously expensive way to learn. O'Leary's advice is a little scholarship to those who should learn these skills while avoiding the high cost of learning everything by experience.

If we favor the special place of expertise in the civil service and broads grants of discretion to apply that expertise, and we do, with that discretion comes accountability in all its forms. That accountability includes the management of dissent in one's agency and responsibility for the bureaucrats in one's agency who choose to be guerrillas. Rosemary O'Leary has written an excellent handbook for public administrators with such responsibilities, for those who aspire to such responsibilities, and for those who study and teach those who aspire to such responsibilities. I agree with Donald F. Kettl's observation in the book's foreword that The Ethics of Dissent: Managing Guerrilla Government "stands as one of the most insightful works on the real world of bureaucracy ever written."

Other reviews from the back cover of the book:


Norma Riccucci

"Rosemary O'Leary's Ethics of Dissent is exquisitely written and provides one of the most compelling analyses and syntheses of the implications of guerrilla government to democracies. The book has exceptional pedagogical features and would be very suitable in a variety of course in not only public administration, but public affairs and public policy as well."

- Rutgers University - Newark

Don Kettl

"The book stands out as one of the most insightful works on the real world of bureaucracy ever written.... It is also an imaginary and path breaking approach to the always-difficult issue of ethics in the public service."

- University of Pennsylvania

Frances S. Berry

"This important book delves into an under-discussed topic - managers as guerrilla fighters - through rich case studies. The author has a wonderful writing style that is very engaging and accessible."

- Florida State University

Steven Maynard-Moody

"The Ethics of Dissent is a lively, well-written book. It covers a range of literature, and the cases provide an essential glimpse into the real workings of government. Combining extended cases with theoretical discussion makes for more interesting classes and connects theory and practice. Books, like O'Leary's, that connect the two are rare. "

- University of Kansas


Guerrillas in government are all around us. They can be as high profile as "Deep Throat," or as low profile as the bureaucrat who belligerently slows the processing of an application for a driver's license. Their dissent stems from dissatisfaction with the actions of public organizations they work for, but they strategically choose not to go public with their concerns. Instead, they work against the wishes-either implicitly or explicitly communicated-of their superiors and run the spectrum from anti-establishment liberals to fundamentalist conservatives, from constructive contributors to deviant destroyers. Typically guerrilla government is undetected as it is woven into the fabric of the everyday, often mundane, world of bureaucracy.

Rosemary O'Leary shows that the majority of guerrilla government cases are the manifestation of inevitable tensions between bureaucracy and democracy, which yield immense ethical and organizational challenges that all public managers must learn to navigate. To illustrate these tensions and challenges, O'Leary presents three in-depth case studies and 21 mini case studies that showcase the range of guerrillas from an official at a regional EPA office to a doctor at a medical school to the director of planning in a county office. O'Leary's fresh analysis, combined with great story-telling, underscores the importance of dissent and presents strategies for ways public servants can decide ethically to engage in guerrilla activity, while offering ways public managers can learn to tap into the potentially insightful, creative ideas and energy of dissenters in order to make constructive changes in the system.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on June 29, 2009
A famous author once said that all books are either works of love or demons that drove their authors to write them. This book is clearly an act of love.

The topic is very timely. As America gears up for change, there will be some government personnel that are caught between their ideals of what they feel they should do and the demands of what their job and their chain of command require them to do.

The book does a great job at laying out the big picture on what is guerilla government and then following up on how to handle both sides of it, i.e., being a guerilla or managing guerilla employees.

Table 5.2, the characteristics of a guerilla in the government ranks, is worth the price of the book alone.

This book is a must read for all government managers or those interested in government affairs.

In service,

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on September 17, 2010
As a Canadian whistleblower and dissent advocate, I found this an important book. Combined with my own experiences, it has shaped my views on how best to address mismanagement and malfeasance.

O'Leary presents case studies as a third way between silence and whistleblowing and describes guerrilla government as unauthorized action by employees to fight back against abuses and defend the public interest. This can include leaking information to the media or to special interest groups, surreptitiously disobeying direct orders and policy directions, and even suing the employer. Even whistleblowing is an option - though hardly the most important as the people in her book prefer to work quietly from the inside. O'Leary acknowledges the ethical issues with this approach, but encourages managers to embrace these dissenters and to harness their energy and ideas to make change.

It is a hopeful view, though one has to wonder whether government bureaucracies - which are stubbornly conservative, hierarchical and authoritarian - could ever make themselves swallow her advice. I also question whether courts are ever an effective remedy given the consistency of decisions against whistleblowers in both the U.S. and Canada. Those who want to dissent must do so carefully and intelligently, either taking great pains to ensure their own actions remain unknown or preparing the ground for a nasty, uneven fight. And they should expect no rewards or accolades (except in qui tam suits, of course), instead doing it because it is the right thing to do.

Ian Bron
Canadians for Accountability
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on April 16, 2012
I usually sell my textbooks back to buy others, but this book was captivating and had excellent chapters on whistle-blowing and how to ethically deal with conflict on every scale. A great book addition for any social science.
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on December 16, 2013
This book was assigned reading for an ethics class I took, and I enjoyed reading it. It's a little like "How to Win Friends and Influence People" in that it makes its points by telling stories, but unlike "How to Win Friends," it gets to the point quickly and efficiently. It' a short book with a lot of important things to say. Every manager who spends her or his time putting out fires should read this book.
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on April 7, 2014
Much of the decision-making process in today's government at all levels is driven by political ideology, rather than governing for the good of the public. "The Ethics of Dissent" provides a number pathways for public employees to moderate political extremes and place the long term benefit of the public above political ideology.
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on January 24, 2013
The book is marvelous, an excellent study of dissenters working within government. The book poses excellent questions, provides solid case studies, and i could not put it down. i recommend it highly, both as a textbook and as light reading.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 9, 2006
I got this book cuz my grad professor had it on his reading list. Although some of the reading at te beginning of the book was hard to follow, later readings were actually easy to digest. I thought the author presented an important topic in government that really hasn't been explored much. I think she may be a little biased towards the guerrillas - however, in most of the cases she presented, I think you'll find it reasonable to see why.

Even if you are not in this field at all, but want to understand more of what goes on in the background of policy - namely, by the "little guy," then I think anyone will enjoy the topics O'Leary presents for your ponder. But I wouldn't take her suggestions at the end of the book, on how to "manage" guerrilas, as the sure-fire soultions.
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