Another high profile public official has fallen by the wayside with the resignation over the weekend of the US State Department’s PJ Crowley for making public, on-the-record comments on his views with respect to the detention of PFC Bradley Manning. When you look at this in the context of the resignation of General Stanley McChrystal for expressing views about the Obama administration in his now-famous Rolling Stone profile, there’s an unfortunate conclusion that might be drawn.

The noises being made about open government and the right for public servants to express opinions seems to have an “only if we like it” caveat.

This begs the question, do our democracies, even in a time of a strongly stated support for open government and Government 2.0, have something of a glass jaw when it comes to criticism?

While for any public servant, the expression of personal and professional views needs to be balanced against those comments’ capacity to bring disrepute to the governments they serve, surely modern democracies ought to be robust and resilient enough to withstand uncomfortable and divergent views from within without the knee-jerk “jump or be pushed” that seems to have taken place in these cases.

As a counterpoint, it was good to see Greg Jericho‘s department here in Australia choose to support him when The Australian newspaper ran its little vendetta against him for his insightful, and critical political blogging and insight into media practices during elections. Perhaps the glass-jawedness has geographical limits?

Here in Australia, we’re yet to see a high-ranking public servant at a level equivalent to Crowley (say, APS Deputy Secretary) or McChrystal, especially one with an active social media profile like Crowley, express a view counter to the government of the day. So, I’m in no position to speculate on what might happen. I suspect they are out there on a number of issues. It will be interesting to see what happens when the inevitable day comes.

Why shouldn’t public officials be able to express strong and sometimes uncomfortable views about the policies and practices of the governments they serve? (Notwithstanding the question of professional conduct and appropriateness or otherwise of commenting within your own portfolio. I personally feel the rules in Australia on this are too restrictive, but I do understand why they exist)

What ever happened to “frank and fearless” advice? (I have strong views on this that I won’t go into here)

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