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The Future of Dissent Channels in U.S. Government Agencies


Outside of the beltway, most of the American public learns of dissenting opinions held by employees within a particular U.S. government agency when details of any formal opposition leak to the press.  The dissent process itself might also seem a little confusing and perhaps at odds with an altruistic vision of a unified approach to policy—that is, an official channel for an agency’s employees to voice disagreement over policies being taken by or impacting that agency.  As many commentators have pointed out over the years, and in light of other forms of a dissent channel or ways of testing alternatives (e.g., the Central Intelligence Agency’s red teams), the dissent channel process is extremely vital to achieving checks and balances and to ensuring the meaningful probing of policies.  In the case of the U.S. Department of State, 2 FAM 70 explicitly describes the dissent channel of a way of ensuring innovation.

Image Courtesy of the U.S. Department of State (c) 2017

The State Department Dissent Channel was created in 1971 in response to some of the controversial positions taken with respect to the Vietnam War.  Any messages conveyed through the Dissent Channel, i.e. dissent memos, must be disseminated to top levels within the State Department and require a formal response.  Some famous examples include the memo submitted in response to President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration and a memo protesting former President Barack Obama’s policy towards Syria.  In 2011, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) also created its own version of the State Department’s Dissent Channel so that USAID employees (both U.S. and foreign nationals) may address concerns directly to the USAID Administrator.

In light of the current political climate in the United States, where a single political party controls all the White House and the Congress, and sits in top leadership positions at U.S. agencies, what is the future of the dissent channels? Should all U.S. government agencies implement some version of the dissent channel?  If dissent memos continue to leak to the public, is their impact diminished in some way because the response is only a crackdown on the dissenters and the tightening of discussion on a particular policy?  And finally, if all U.S. agencies have dissent channels, how can we ensure that the process and end-product (e.g. a formal response by leadership) do not simply evolve into some version of a never-ending C.Y.A., but rather result in tangible action to reconsider or otherwise change a policy?

I agree with former Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal that Washington does, in fact, need more dissent channels to meaningfully ensure checks and balances.  Whistleblowers will continue to leak dissent memos if they feel that their opposition is being ignored by the top levels of government.  And without formalized dissent channels to begin with at certain agencies, any crackdowns on opposition results in the loss of meaningful dialogue and continued distrust that will only cause internal implosions that could likely become public.

Not only do more U.S. agencies need to have formalized dissent channels as a way of further institutionalizing dissent, but also those dissent channels should go further when it comes to the response.  Perhaps a response might include an official investigation or a structure for continuous follow-up following the submission of the dissent memo. Regardless, formalized dissent channels within the U.S. government have never been more important.

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