• Opinion
  • June 17, 2019
  • 8 minutes
  • 0

We need to talk about the passive-aggressive culture in government

Opinion: The first step to getting better is admitting there is a problem

This article was written by Jordana Globerman, Design Thinking and Innovation Advisor at the Innovation Lab, Canada. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the ESDC innovation lab. For more like this, see our work and inequality newsfeed.

Innovating in government can feel like a battle: a fight against orthodoxy and routine.

When we push against traditional structures to invite the unknown, we witness first hand the attachment style of government culture. If the private sector yells and throws plates, the government deals in riddles and cold shoulders.

Government passive-aggressiveness can shut out innovation instead of embracing conflict through open, direct dialogue.

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In this article, I will deconstruct this tendency towards “passive-aggressiveness” and it’s more detrimental aspects, offering solutions to better internal conflict resolution. It takes two perspectives to make a marriage, both valid in their own respect.

The rules and regulations of government culture protects citizens; the openness of innovation units keep these protections agile to the needs of citizens. Conflict between these different perspectives is natural, and effective communication necessary to turn difference into creative resolution.  


Private sector partnerships have clear parameters, expectations and deliverables.

These are explicit, as are consequences when expectations or deliverables fail to be met. Confusion wastes time and time is money.

Government often speaks around intentions and commitments. This attitude manifests externally in politics and internally as well: vague emails, obtuse references to rules that should be known without articulation of the rules themselves. Disappointments are kept private, for fear of offence. Failing partnerships are weathered in the hope of improvement, or brokered out of ignorance. Two examples are FEMA’s contracting failure for hurricane relief in 2017, and Canada’s lack of consultation with Australia prior to the Phoenix pay scandal.

Government needn’t and shouldn’t adopt the market ruthlessness of the private sector, but it could benefit from a more direct approach to conflict. A truthful, efficient, and open style of communication would present huge benefits to public sector culture and services.

Changing a negative culture

A history of being ignored might lead a person to fits of rage; being surrounded by arguments might make a person shut down in a fight. To change our behaviour we must first understand the impulse behind it.

No one likes a fight, but sometimes it’s necessary

A 2018 discussion paper by the Institute for Government draws a line between lack of accountability and a culture of blame, noting that when a lack of accountability leads to a failure, someone must take the hit. This goes both ways. Government’s passive-aggressive approach is in part shaped by a fear of accountability. One becomes responsible for an opinion when they make it heard. One can remain untouched by the success or failure of a situation’s outcome if they remain detached from the situation.

It’s also very difficult to hold a strong opinion on a subject you don’t fully understand. When dealing in an innovation context, government players might not have a precedent for quality. Without contextual and experiential knowledge it’s difficult to notice warning signs on the path to failure, and so one might remain reticent to intervene.

One may turn their back to an issue because they don’t care; hoping that, by ignoring a problem, it will go away entirely. Sadly, a culture of passive-aggressiveness might stem from apathy, from those who would rather look good than do good. This culture of “good news” leads to oversights and overspending such as the U.K. Ministry of Defence’s still irremediable expenditures from 2009.

What’s the problem?

Government shouldn’t apply a capitalist mentality to spending, but it should well steward taxpayer dollars.

Talking around an issue, rather than communicating openly is unproductive and costly. Government is vested with the duty of providing quality programs and services to citizens. Without active vision, quality is compromised.

Passive-aggressive communication negatively shapes culture. It quashes conflict and leaves no opening for dissent. It eschews accountability, which in turn leaves little room for growth: you can’t learn from failures that don’t exist. Diversity of thought is crucial to arriving at innovative solutions. Without productive conflict, nothing can evolve.

Getting better

The first step to getting better is admitting you have a problem.

By acknowledging the motivations behind a behaviour you can alter it. If a lack of knowledge motivates government passive-aggressiveness greater effort should be taken to educate individuals at all levels about new approaches, ideas, and methods.

Building internal capacity in specialised areas helps build this internal expertise. If an area of government finds themselves unfamiliar with the content necessary to steer a project, they can involve or delegate the monitoring of this project to their internal experts – as a private company might.

If accountability is a fear, than measures can be taken to distribute ownership and manage risk, such as clearly articulating contract milestones and partner responsibilities, and building risk-mitigation strategies into project plans. Risk-management and accountability should be built into processes so that they become usual to ways of doing things, rather than scary.

None of this can be accomplished without courage.

Courageous decision-making is key to managing effective, productive and quality partnerships. It establishes a culture which embraces new ideas and pushes for extraordinary solutions.

No one likes a fight, but sometimes it’s necessary. Respectful conflict bashes perspectives together to form solutions. Feelings might be hurt, but they won’t be sublimated – which makes us all healthier in the end. — Jordana Globerman

(Photo credit: Unsplash)


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