Silencing the voices of federal experts will hurt the safety and health of US

Scientific evidence shows psychological safety, or the freedom to express different points of view without fear of reprisal, is key for organizations to function effectively. In a larger sense, freedom of speech is fundamental to a functioning democracy.

And yet psychological safety is steadily disintegrating before our eyes months into the Trump administration, with tangible consequences for federal employees and civil servants, presenting serious threats to the functioning of federal agencies.

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The use of power to silence alternative views began within hours of the new administration and has only intensified since. We’re familiar with President’s Trump’s insistence that the National Park Service post a photo validating his claim that 1.5 million people attended his inauguration, which clearly wasn’t true.

 

Trump’s first executive order on immigration catalyzed a massive response through the State Department’s Dissent Channel, created during the Vietnam War era to allow civil servants to express oppositional views about foreign policy to senior leadership without fear of retribution.

An unprecedented 1,000 diplomats signed a memo arguing the ban would not prevent terror attacks but rather dampen international goodwill toward the United States. More recently, the administration turned up the heat on identifying the source of leaks about Trump’s top advisers and connections to Russia. Some staff have taken to encrypting communications, for fear they will be monitored and punished without basis.

Disagreements and conflicts are inevitable with any transition to new leadership, and the President was elected based on his promise to challenge and confront the status quo. While provocative, open discussions can be healthy for organizations, it is also often easier said than done to cultivate psychologically safe environments in organizations.

For example, in working to improve survival rates for people with heart attacks, our team at Yale University tried to increase psychological safety in 10 hospitals across the United States. We were successful in in six but only after huge investments including $2 million, intense work by international experts, and major commitment by hospital leaders and staff.

A classic example of the power of psychological safety is John F. Kennedy’s approach to decision-making, which changed dramatically over the course of his administration.

Early in his term, President Kennedy’s decision to execute a covert plan to oust Fidel Castro, known as the Bay of Pigs fiasco, was the basis for the term “groupthink,” coined by Yale psychologist Irving Janis. Groupthink is a psychological drive for consensus at any cost that suppresses dissent and appraisal of alternatives.

When faced with the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy learned from his mistake and developed decision-making principles to reduce the influence of hierarchy, elicit diverse views, and give safe space for candid debate and push-back.

Protecting psychological safety in this climate will take concerted efforts and vigilance. There are at least three actions we can take: Preserve (and perhaps replicate) formal mechanisms like the State Department’s dissent channel.

Persistently and publicly support and endorse instances when civil servants express divergent or critical views. Donald Berwick, former head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, has been vocal in expressing support for Republican Sens. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiMoore digs in amid mounting GOP criticism Republicans float pushing back Alabama special election Moore defends himself as pressure mounts MORE (R-Alaska) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsBipartisan group of lawmakers aim to reform US sugar program A bipartisan bridge opens between the House and Senate Gaming the odds of any GOP tax bill getting signed into law MORE (R-Maine) for their opposition to the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, for example.

The combination of intimidation and public rebukes is potent and quite likely to have a chilling effect on civil servants’ willingness to express views that diverge from the administration.

Diplomats, scientists, administrators and staff of federal agencies have deep expertise and experience, and are essential to making the many wheels of government turn. Silencing their voices fosters risks to the safety, health and well-being of the country in ways we are only just beginning to understand.

Leslie Curry, Ph.D., MPH, a Yale University Public Voices Fellow, is a senior research scientist and lecturer in public health and associate director, Patient Centered Outcomes Research Training Program at Yale.


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