While speaking on a panel at NYU Wagner yesterday, I encouraged my fellow grad students to start blogging. One guy asked me a sensible question about what happens when you write something that might be unpopular with employers. My answer wasn’t very articulate, so I’d like to take a mulligan and try again here.
But first, a related issue: Saundra Schimmelpfennig has recently been leading the charge against World Vision’s distribution of NFL t-shirts. A few weeks ago, she noted that development bloggers have been relatively silent on World Vision (relative, at least, to the cacophony raised about another t-shirt related campaign). She argued that this was due to pressure from World Vision and concern among bloggers that engaging with the issue would be bad for their careers. Allow me to take this opportunity to state that my silence on the issue has been due only to school and work, which have conspired to reduce my blogging time. The World Vision/NFL collaboration looks like a terrible idea to me. Rather than argue the points here, I refer you to Saundra’s compilation of posts on the issue.
Back to the original question: I do worry that what I write here could hurt my career. Here’s why those worries don’t stop me from writing.
- I like arguments. I think they help to generate better solutions. (Also, they’re fun.) We should always be able to argue for ideas — with passion but without personal investment in them. I like working with smart people who get that. I think of the classic line: “If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people. And if you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.” If you expect everyone in the workplace to already agree with one another, I don’t want to work for you.*
- That said, I don’t blame an organization for wanting to stifle external dissent. Development organizations operate in competitive environments. Bad PR can hurt fundraising as well as staff recruitment. This is true for NGOs, contractors, and even donor agencies, which depend on the good will of their legislators. If you run one of these organizations and you believe in what your organization does (as I hope you do), it’s reasonable that you would do everything you can to continue the flow of resources. So even if someone disagrees with you or with the official organizational line, and even if you’re smart enough that you encourage that dissent, I can understand why you would not want such dissent to be public. You don’t want any hint that the organization’s staff isn’t fully invested in the work. For recent high profile examples of what happens when an organization’s problems get broader attention, check out the Global Fund and AED.
- However, public discourse is extremely important for moving the whole industry forward. We need the people closest to the work to comment on what works and what doesn’t, and we need to learn from one another. We can’t afford to limit our epistemic community to those whose jobs are specifically focused on research and knowledge management (as great as these people are). Blogs are a way to lower the barrier to entry for that conversation, increasing the ideas and voices that participate.
- So how do we combine each organization’s need to stifle external dissent with the industry’s need to encourage it? One way is for bloggers to remain anonymous, as two of the best aid/development bloggers (Tales from the Hood and Shotgun Shack) have done. For me, the biggest benefit of blogging has been that it’s forced me to read other blogs, think about issues, and stay sharp. I could have done that anonymously. However I’ve chosen not to be anonymous because I think the career benefits of attaching my name outweigh the career risks. Ultimately, that’s a choice that each blogger must make. I tread lightly when commenting about specific organizations, regardless of whether I have worked/do work/ever hope to work with them. Potential future employers might still worry that I would wikileaks them. The industry would benefit if organizations had written policies guaranteeing a certain amount of freedom for public comment from their employees, but with clear statement of what lines cannot be crossed. Until then, they’ll just have to trust that I have good enough judgement to not do anything stupid.
I’d be curious to hear from other bloggers on this. How do you think about the career concerns and have they influenced whether you publish anonymously or not?
* Sadly, word has it that some NGOs don’t even tolerate internal dissent. So I may need to swallow this principle at some point. My ideals are totally negotiable, don’t you worry.
“Never tell anybody outside the family what you’re thinking again.”