Hillary Clinton, recordkeeping, and the protection of process
Stephen Bounds — Fri, 13/03/2015 - 13:47
Image and Data Manager has published an excellent round-up and analysis of the recent revelation that Hillary Clinton chose to send and receive all of her emails while Secretary of State on a private server on her own domain.
I don't want to focus on the merits of Clinton's particular situation, but rather to look at a particular implication of her choice. The three key charges faced by Clinton include that she:
- may have deleted emails which should have been retained as records
- may have broken rules in handling security-classified information on an insecure system, and that she
- may have exposed her emails to being hacked
What is fascinating about these is that there is no evidence to suggest that Hillary has deliberately or inadvertently let any of these things happen in reality. Indeed, a Wall Street Journal article suggests that the US government's email system has already been compromised by hackers for months, if not years. Clinton is essentially being accused of hypotheticals.
But here's the thing: by choosing not to follow "procedure", Clinton is unable to hide behind the facade that protects individuals from facing the consequences of organisational failures. If all of her emails been deleted while they were on "official" servers, Clinton wouldn't be personally blamed. It would be the Department responsible for managing her network that would come under fire.
People who want to avoid risk always ask about "the process". What they mean is: Where are the boundaries? How do I act so I'm shielded from unwanted consequences?
This is particularly common with public service employees, who are tasked with carrying out Ministerial edicts. Faced with impossible or at least nonsensical tasks, public servants are masters of "the procedure" -- getting agreement on how things are to be done, normally in writing, so that people know how to avoid individual blame for any poor outcomes.
A classic example is personnel recruiting. At one workshop, I asked participants why it was important to follow a process for recruiting. Did it always lead to the best candidate being hired? Almost everyone knew of a story where the selected candidate turned out to be a horrible fit. Then why have the process at all? The group's conclusion was that the most important aspect of the process was that it could be defended if challenged. The merits of the actual process were secondary at best.
When people are placed in a situation that doesn't have the protections of process, it can be pretty stressful. Some people thrive in that uncertainty, seeking to take advantage of that freedom (whether that advantage is ethical or unethical is a whole other can of worms). Some are merely tough enough to understand their exposure and get mentally prepared for that challenge when it comes.
Clinton is definitely tough enough to operate without process, but like many of these situations the ethics of her behaviour will probably only be determined with time.
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