During his presidency, Donald Trump and members of his administration have repeatedly accused federal civil servants of undermining their agenda through the “deep state.” They sought to reduce workplace protections for career employees, sought to cut funding to certain agencies, and in some cases attempted to undermine or change agency missions.
Hamilton College Associate Professor of Sociology Jaime Kucinskas and Yvonne Zylan, an independent scholar, published the article “Walking the Moral Tightrope: Loyalty, Caution, and Resistance of Federal Civil Servants under the Trump Administration” in American Journal of Sociology.
The authors address the question, “How are mid- and high-level career civil servants across agencies experiencing and responding to the Trump administration? Are the career corps as mission-loyal, risk-averse?” , and serially partisan or nonpartisan as most public administration research instead describes?”
Kucinskas and Zylan’s findings raise concerns about the vulnerability of the United States government to sustained democratic retreat and deterioration under a future more competent autocratic leader.
Based on 127 interviews with working and former mid- and high-level career civil servants during the first three years of the Trump administration, the authors found that, despite widespread dissatisfaction with the Trump administration, most of the civil servants for the most part want to fulfill the work, limited by their loyalty to act precisely within the scope of their orders.
This is despite the fact that respondents repeatedly report an unusually toxic, unpredictable, and fear-based political leadership class—one that makes long-standing bureaucratic service rules untenable. strong action guidelines. Employees tread a sort of moral and ethical rope stretched dangerously between two poles, drawing a line between one side and the “guerrillas” who rebel within a “deep state” on the other.
Kucinskas and Zylan found that a variety of intuitive, habitual, and conscious, deliberative moral and ethical calculations characterized the respondents’ actions and their interpretations of what they did. Under repressive leadership, there is less room for the exercise of institutional voice, and the incentives to exit are heightened.
Few if any of their respondents exhibited extreme behavior. Instead, they seek ways to maintain multiple, often competing, professional, institutional, and ethical commitments while avoiding violations of the Hatch act or putting themselves at risk of political punishment. They are concerned about acting in complicity with an increasingly repressive regime, but seem more concerned about violating professional and institutional norms of loyalty to the agency, mission, and government,
Under these conditions, the options for safe expression of dissent are dramatically narrow. Previously approved forms of voice, including institutionalized grievance and dissent mechanisms, have become politicized and personal, making them more dangerous and less consistent with civil service norms of loyalty and nonpartisanship.
Most of the authors’ informants expressed alarm at the potential damage to the federal government and the public by the new administration.
Over time, these concerns have led many career civil servants to engage in a variety of acts, some of which can reasonably be described as forms of resistance, although some of our respondents described them as such. Instead, the career of civil servants tends to make their actions not as resistance or approval, but as differences in the acceptable bureaucratic adaptation to changes in political leadership, which remains the majority of lines set by the new administration and satisfactory norms of institutional and agency loyalty.
Those who feel supported by supervisors or colleagues are more likely to express opposition or subtly undermine or delay initiatives. Yet supervisors (especially in contested agencies) are often reluctant to support dissent, even as they express frustration and fear at the direction of their agencies.
No one understands “follow” or “resist” guided action. Even among the mid- and high-ranking career bureaucrats interviewed by the authors, the influence of coworkers and superiors is critical. They largely reinforce a risk-averse professional culture, but they also serve as reference groups that may approve of unscrupulous behavior where it arises.
The researchers also observed expressed intentions to leave their agencies. By the end of their study, one-fifth of the employees they initially interviewed had left the federal government.
As the new administration adopted more repressive political tactics over time, it fundamentally changed the definition of what is morally right and wrong in structuring pragmatic, moral, and ethical assessments of civil servants. This gives rise to some remarkable cracks in the coherence of the narratives expressed by even the most seasoned civil servants working in the most affected areas.
In interviews, they described failing to understand what was happening, experiencing cognitive dissonance, and feeling unsure of themselves and their surroundings.
The two authors completed three waves of semi-structured, in-depth interviews to track respondents’ experiences over the course of a presidential term. They spoke to civil servants at the beginning, middle, and end of the administration (March–August, 2017, June–November 2018, and December 2019–March 2020, respectively).
For the second wave, they tried to do follow-up interviews with all the civil servants from the first round who were still working for the federal government and talked to 30 more people. They conducted 19 follow-up interviews and interviewed two new informants in the third wave from the end of 2019 before President Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate until mid-March, while starting the coronavirus pandemic shutdowns.
For their third round of interviews, they contacted those working in high-level positions and people most likely to experience change, because those who experienced “significant change…
Their respondents work in almost all federal executive branch agencies – some of which are subject to substantial proposed budget cuts such as, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The largest groups of civil servant interviews are at the EPA, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Department of State (DoS), because they seek to oversample the most controversial. and highest ranking positions.
Jaime Kucinskas et al, Walking the Moral Tightrope: Loyalty, Caution, and Resistance of Federal Civil Servants under the Trump Administration, American Journal of Sociology (2023). DOI: 10.1086/725313
Given by Hamilton College
Citation: Walking the moral tightrope: Exploring the impact of the Trump presidency on the civil service (2023, July 18) retrieved 19 July 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-07-moral-tightrope-exploring- effect- trump.html
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