The Dissent Backchannel

Apple Watch
                   The Apple Watch

With this process in place we might never have seen the Edsel, New Coke, the Iraq War, Apple Watch, Brexit, and any of thousands of misadventures.

A recent front page article in the New York Times headlined the news that 51 senior State Department officials signed a memo of dissent complaining that current policies to contain the Syrian civil war were not working.  Most readers of the piece came away with the impression of a State Department in disarray: an agency riddled with complaints that had spilled into the open. But that was not quite the story.  From at least one perspective, the Times buried the real lede.

It turns out that memos of dissent are encouraged by the State Department.  A “Dissent Channel” is a long-established tradition of allowing members of the agency to voice concerns about American policy, which can be expressed without career recriminations. The idea started by Secretary of State William Rogers in the Vietnam era was to feed the policy review process with more input from staff out in the field.

Interestingly, though the memo was leaked, the Obama administration didn’t publicly react as if anything dysfunctional had happened.  The concerns were noted, but the signers were not condemned or disciplined.  There would be no Nixonian threats of tax audits or shortened careers.

We’ve since learned that other agencies, including the CIA, have something similar: teams whose jobs it is to present counter-arguments to planned courses of action.

Of course the press loves to report on bureaucracies at war with themselves.  But an alternative narrative is equally plausible and definitively preferable. As former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said in a famous decent on a First Amendment case:   “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”  A marketplace of competing ideas is a noble thing, and can be adapted to almost any organization.  Well articulated dissents should have the effect of saving a nation or an organization from an action that will fail.

Done in the right spirit, a formal channel for registering another view on a momentous course of action can be a good thing.

Decision-makers in both public and private organizations ought to welcome substantive challenges to planned policies.  Done in the right spirit, a formal channel for registering another view on a momentous course of action can be a good thing. Decision-makers can quickly learn just how good or how vulnerable a planned course of action really is.  Think of this as the old question box converted into a more formal mechanism for review of a pending policy.

Of course all sides have to be intellectually secure in their reasons. It has to be understood that the subject under discussion is not a person, but an idea.  This can be a major hurdle if individuals or units have redefined approval of a proposed action as a test of their power or legitimacy.

If this problem of personalization can be avoided a lot of can be gained.  With this dissent mechanism in place we might have never seen the Edsel, “New” Coke, the Iraq War, the Apple Watch, Brexit, and any of thousands of similar misadventures.


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