Why Dissenting Viewpoints Are Good for Efficiency

Encouraging informed disagreement is the only way a public leader can learn whether an initiative might -- or might not -- succeed.

by / July 26, 2016

Major improvements in governmental efficiency obviously will occur only when they are driven by the leader of a city, state or agency. Leaders who accomplish the most drive change forward over a myriad of obstacles. But such a bet on the future can be bold or foolish. How does a public official know whether he or she is moving in the right direction?

Leaders, of course, are no stronger than the information on which they base a decision, and a loyal follower is only as good as the information he or she chooses to provide to the boss. That's why it's so important to encourage, and pay attention to, dissenting viewpoints.

When I started as mayor of Indianapolis years ago, I created an office that was akin to an internal management-consulting operation, tasked with producing new solutions and processes to address existing problems. In fact, for me its real value was to increase the amount of information and diverse perspectives I received, as it could provide a counterweight to the reports and advice I got from departments. I certainly convinced myself, at least, that I had created an environment that encouraged and received dissent.

Yet was the openness to dissent more real in my mind than in those of the people who worked for me? When I subsequently went to work for New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg as deputy mayor of operations, I had a leader who gave his appointees backing and authority and encouraged dissent in many ways, including having everyone working in an open office space without walls and a willingness to listen without formality.

Although there were not many times where I wanted to object to a decision, it would be disingenuous for me not to confess that I registered the objections I did make judiciously, aware that at some point a too frequent dissenter's influence becomes diluted or his or her team sports skills are questioned. I appreciate that this reticence was my issue and not that of the boss, which is what set me thinking about how I could have given those who worked for me as mayor a better process.

Having been both a principal and an agent reinforces the old saying that where you stand depends on where you sit. I had been thinking about the role of dissent when a few weeks ago major newspapers covered the story of senior State Department professionals dissenting from President Obama's policy on Syria. Those articles made me wonder what such outspoken dissent meant for not only our national policy but also for the smooth functioning of the department itself. Then I read an insightful op-ed by Neal K. Katayl in The New York Times that pointed out that the diplomats who issued the report had utilized a formal "dissent channel" that had been established by Secretary of State William Rogers during the Vietnam War.

Nothing, of course, approaches the presidency as an institution whose rituals and gravitas tend to reinforce the tendency to elevate respect over dissent. Nevertheless, mayors, governors and other senior officials would be well served by structuring their offices to legitimize and encourage informed and thoughtful dissent. An independent innovations office tasked with doing due diligence on major issues can be one mechanism. Or, as has been the case in New York City, this can take the form of an operations team that works for the deputy mayor and can evaluate programs and plans of other agencies -- on whether or how to outsource a service, for instance, or what went wrong with a snowstorm response or how a program's functions should be reorganized or combined.

Certainly dissent can be overdone. Endless dispute produces a rudderless ship, and every ship needs a helmsman. But policy decisions carry very significant implications and often involve a set of trade-offs over which reasonable professionals may disagree, underlining the importance of a structured dissent mechanism.

There are different ways to approach institutionalizing this. It can be done through the creation of a separate unit responsible for innovation and the collection of ideas that challenge the status quo. It can be done in the manner that Mike Bloomberg did through encouragement, context and proximity. Or it can be accomplished through a State Department-like formal channel. Regardless of the approach, establishing a clear signal that differing points of view are encouraged will improve the chances that an important change in operations or policy will succeed.

This article was originally published on Governing.

Stephen Goldsmith

Stephen Goldsmith is the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: the New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America, and The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance.