Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Importance of Trusting Experts

This is really a FB post that just got so long that I am putting it here.  It is not particularly spiritual, although I think the contemplation of where do we and should we trust is important.  It is about the Hillary Clinton email scandal and my concerns with the way in which this is being conducted.
My biggest issue with the Clinton email scandal is an issue about trust...but it is not, for me, about trusting Hillary. It is about the fact that in order for any of us to function, including the President of the United States, we have to be able to and allowed to trust experts and that, when this is made impossible, no one can function and no one can govern. None of us are self-sufficient and to think that we are is narcissism.
So, for example, I am the chair of the Institutional Review Board for the protection of human subjects in my university. In that capacity, I approve (or deny approval) to research projects, some of which are not minimal risk. In other words, for some of the research proposals I review, it is possible that people can get hurt or die and what I have to evaluate is whether or not that risk is acceptable in light of the potential benefits and whether the mitigations to those risks are sufficient. What I am competent and capable of doing is identifying when data security is vitally important for protecting people...as I said, sometimes potentially protecting their lives. If you are going to a refugee camp to interview people about how they are being treated by authorities...that is potentially life threatening and the inability of anyone in power to figure out who said something critical is vitally important. So, I can say, "you must have rock solid data security." What I am not able to do is to say what a rock solid data security plan looks like. For that, I refer that piece of the analysis to our data security experts. I have to trust them. The researcher has to trust them. Both the researcher and I understand well the gravity of the situation (the researcher's competence in understanding risk is part of what is evaluated before permission is given) - but we have to trust (and obey) the expert counsel on how to set up and use a data security plan. If we were at a point where we could not trust in the expertise of data security experts, all such research just couldn't get done...or worse, you have non-experts trusting their own knowledge over listening to expertise and coming up with inadequate solutions.
What this situation about the email scandal looks like to me is that Hillary Clinton becomes Secretary of State. She is undoubtedly briefed on the various levels of confidentiality required for specific documents and types of documents. She surely consults with the higher-up permanent employees of State about how to follow those guidelines. Apparently, the last few people in her position, Secretary of State, had a private email server set up and used in the way in which she used it...so, it seems to have been the standard operating procedure used by the past few Secretaries of State and was recommended to her about how to handle her email. She apparently sent her IT expert to consult about how to set it up, believing that this would then meet the qualifications about how to handle the security and her email. I'm sure that after it was set up (as had been done by the last few people in her position as part of their standard workflow) she thought that if she did what she had been told to do, she would be in compliance. She has to trust the experts who were in permanent positions and IT experts. Now, retrospectively, we think this is a security risk...and maybe it was. Maybe this was a terrible way for this to have been done all along and it never will be done this way again after this kind of scandal...but that is retrospective. Holding her responsible for something that was clearly normal procedure is problematic. And let me explain why this is so deeply unsettling...in addition to the fact that it just looks like one more time that the Inquisition is out for Hillary Clinton's blood...something I have been watching for almost all of my politically aware life.
I live in Washington, DC. I am not a professional government employee, but I am surrounded by them and I know something about how the federal government works. The vast majority of the work of government comes from civil servants. They often get a bad rap (they are portrayed as being lazy and overpaid). That is NOT what I observe. I observe a bunch of deeply dedicated professionals, the storehouse of expertise in our government. They are the ones who bring coherence to our government when the elected players switch over continuously. Yes, a government worker in DC may make a salary that would make people elsewhere in the country scream that they are being overpaid...my rent in DC for a one bedroom is $2100 a month and buying is completely outside of my capacity. I don't think our civil servants are overpaid.
Part of what our civil servants have to deal with every few years is a regime change. The upper leadership of everything is shifted out and reappointed...usually by people who have to learn the ropes while the business of government keeps on moving. The people at the top usually bring with them political ideologies and often change priorities in their institutions. So, part of what we need these new appointees to do is to have some trust of the civil servants beneath them and to listen to their expertise....because without it, you have a bunch of politically motivated folks playing for the cameras of the media and acting without the benefit of actually understanding what it is that they are doing...or serving special interests without knowing how it fits into the overall picture. Anyone who has been through a regime change in the civil service knows this.
What I want in a President is someone who will listen to, try to understand, and be guided by expertise. And we have a lot of expertise in our civil servants. I want someone whose opinions can be shifted when presented with good reasons - and there are a lot of instances of Hillary responding this way that are on record...I don't see that as "waffling," I see that as a virtue and indication of a reasonable mind. The way in which this email investigation is being conducted, from where I sit (trying to retrospectively hold her accountable for following what was the standard operating protocol for people in her position) undermines the ability of ANY President or political appointee to be able to trust expert opinion. Whoever wins this election, that is a dangerous precedent...we are about to have yet another regime change no matter who wins.  
I believe that if this situation were being handled appropriately, I think that it should have caused a reevaluation of that procedure and a change in the procedure...because there are always things that we are currently doing that look like not as a good an idea in retrospect...that is growth. Instead, though, what we do is to blame individuals and hold them "accountable" rather than address things systematically. I don't see any good that comes from this way of dealing with things...and I see a lot of harm. One of the other things that I know (and I know people personally in this situation) is that this way of approaching problems does not create systematic change, it creates situations in which individuals get scapegoated and creates fear in which sometimes experts are afraid to speak up. I know people who have been scapegoated. I know dedicated civil servants who have had their careers destroyed in our desire to hold people "accountable" for doing what they were supposed to do when our beliefs about the rightness of those actions has changed. We need to have some way for re-evaluating our procedures that does not require us to throw people under the bus for doing their job.  
I'm not talking about gross negligence of duty or recklessness that a reasonable person would recognize as such. I'm talking about things like...why would Hillary Clinton question the advice about data security on an email server that she got from the professional IT experts at State? That's not reasonable. So long as she actually did what she was advised, that is what a reasonable person in her position should do. We need our appointed officials to be able to trust the expertise of the civil servants in their employee. If that becomes impossible, we are in for an unbelievably huge mess.

1 comment:

Debby Morris said...

Thank you.
I'm so sharing this.