Snowden’s public resignation as a whistle blower: lessons for changing an organisation?

Great Seal Bug from NSA archives

Great Seal Bug from NSA archives (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, Edward Snowden publicly leaked National Security Agency (NSA) documents in a bid to alert the public to the surveillance state.   He wanted to change America by igniting a debate over security and privacy.  By disclosing documents publicly and speaking out publicly, he acted as a whistleblower.  In doing so, he effectively offered a public resignation from his job because he knew he would be fired.

In that act, he appeared to fit the profile of many workers who want to resign publicly or blow the whistle on what they perceive as incompetence or even criminality. They chafe under an organisational hierarchy seemingly focused on the wrong goals, behaving badly, or even engaging in potential or real criminal activity. They dream that they can change it through a bold personal act.  For some, it will be a report to the management team showing where it has gone wrong and what needs to be done to make it right.  For others, where that option has been tried and failed, a different approach may be needed.   Paul Moore formerly of HBOS, who after trying to warn the bank about its risk taking, became a whistle-blower during parliamentary hearings on the financial crisis. They may even be like Greg Smith, formerly of Goldman Sachs, and make a public resignation to highlight what they perceive to be a corporate culture in crisis.  In each case, the person decides that a public statement is needed to change the company or in the case of Mr. Snowden, the country.

On the surface, it seems plausible that their bold and public action will have the intended effect.  The organisation may be legally required to change or at a minimum be shamed into changing.  With their public statement, they describe what needs to be changed and why. They can make their case directly to the public and the organisation then has to respond.  At the same time, the public can track whether the changes have occurred.  The publicity acts as the greatest exclamation point.  Yet, the reality is that the public resignation is unlikely to change the organisation or the country for several reasons.

First, the whistle-blower legislation is focused on illegal activity and not poor decision-making, nor flawed corporate leadership, nor destructive corporate culture. As a result, the courts, regulators, investors or voters are unlikely to take the same organisational interest in your resignation statement. They are going to be focused on the legal or regulatory remedies and issues and not your personal views.  Second, the whistle blower and the publicity becomes an external threat to reputation. In response, the reputational management mechanisms will be engaged to deal with your challenge to the organisation’s reputation.  When this relates to the political process, the politics of the issue soon overcome the initial statement.  Third, the whistleblower is now outside the organisation.  The organisation can now dismiss or downplay all your statements for the same reasons that you left (you were disgruntled, you did not get your own way, you were wrong).

With these issues in mind, it is important to understand why you are doing it and what you hope to achieve.  In looking at these questions, we begin to see that Mr. Snowden may not have thought through the consequences of his act in terms of the impact or its effectiveness.

First, are you trying to change the company or yourself?

In this question, we get to the heart of Mr. Snowdens’ complaint. The issue is his concern that Americans are like him and living comfortably even as their freedom is eroded. Unlike other Americans, he knows how the freedom is being eroded and he chafes as that loss of liberty. He wants to awaken other Americans to feel the same way he does about security and privacy.   Yet, his statement seems more about himself rather than the American public.

By speaking publicly, Snowden appears to be making a cathartic statement that is more about himself than about America or a legitimate plan to change the NSA.  His statements appear as self-justificatory statements to disassociate himself from the NSA and by implication the United States Government, which authorised the NSA and its actions.  However, that does not mean Mr. Snowden is right and the NSA and its political masters are wrong.  Instead, it may show that there is not a fit between Mr. Snowden and the company.

Second, could you have changed the company by staying?

The best way to change a company is from inside.  In that regard, we have heard nothing of Mr Snowden’s attempt to raise the issue aside from one reference to others not having a problem with what he described. If Mr. Snowden did not follow internal protocols or attempt to raise the issues or concerns internally, it undermines his claims about the organisation being out of touch or unsympathetic.  In particular, as the NSA has a regular ethics programme, is audited, and the orders were duly authorised from the President and there are Senate and House oversight committees, it seems that Mr. Snowden is out of touch with the legal and democratic framework within which the NSA acts.  Whistleblowers like Sherron Watkins could show that they attempt to fix the problem before blowing the whistle.

Mr. Snowden’s public statement only shows that he did not attempt or would not try to change the organisation from within its formal process. Here we see how and why Greg Smith’s statement had less of an effect than many people believed.  What he was alleging is that the corporate culture was toxic. However, that does not mean the organisation is acting improperly or acting in a way that will harm its profitability.  All it shows is that Mr. Smith did not fit with Goldman Sachs.

Third, is the company capable of changing?

The question is more than a rhetorical one.  Enron and WorldCom could not change even though there had been resignations and whistle-blowers. They were literally sinking before the whistle-blowers emerged and could not be changed. They were incapable of change because their fundamental culture was flawed and the business itself was business model was flawed.  At some point, usually when whistle-blowers emerge, the damage is so extensive that change is almost impossible without a fundamental reform beyond the efforts of any one person.

In the case of the NSA, it is unlikely to change because its change depends on the political system as much as its own efforts. This does not mean that the NSA is impervious to change or resists change. Instead, it shows that the NSA is a creature of statute and a government bureaucracy.  As such, the revelations are not about the inner workings of the NSA.  After all, Mr. Snowden has not alleged that he was doing unauthorised surveillance or that targets were being chosen for personal interest.  Instead, he disagrees wit the political direction of the NSA, which is something the NSA cannot change because it receives its direction from its political masters.

What does Mr. Snowden’s statement do except contribute to, rather than initiate, a public debate or draw attention to something unknown.  If the company is unable to change, what will a public resignation do?  In Greg Smith’s case, he believed that change was possible.  He wanted to save the company from its corporate culture.  The problem for his approach may be that the corporate culture is still successful and although showing symptoms of toxicity is still working.   In the case of the NSA, the organisation is successful and appears to be well run in its internal processes.  Even though there are intelligence failures and still too much silo working that does not mean the NSA is ineffective in itself.

Can we change corporate culture from the outside?

At the heart of the public resignation statement is the belief that corporate culture can be changed by external factors.  In many ways, there is a belief that public attention on the company will change it.  As Gaby Hinsliff has written, shame cannot be under estimated for its effect on people such bankers, MPs, and tabloid owners. Yet, organisations are not people.  They do not respond to external stimuli in the same way that a person might.  The organisation is structured as a protective shell that nurtures and protects the internal culture so that the organisation can survive and thrive.  If something like a public resignation letter, or bad press, challenges that culture, the response is more likely to be defensive than welcoming.  The reason is that the organisation already “knows” about the issue and may not see the issue in the same way.  Thus, a disagreement over risk may just be that, a disagreement where both sides may have valid points.

In the case of the NSA, the public revelations only add to an ongoing debate. The statement while noteworthy and noticeable is relatively insignificant in its potential effect.  The statement only asks Americans to have a debate and to reconsider some core decisions that are made in the political arena by elected representatives. The change Mr. Snowden wants has to occur through a different process, the political process, that does not value such statements beyond the status of the speaker.  In other words, it is a shout in windstorm of political rhetoric.

For Goldman Sachs, Mr. Smith’s letter has raised some questions. However, the letter did not lead to any substantive change.  In the case of Mr Snowden, it would appear his worst fear is to be realized. He has made this statement and it has failed to awaken the public.  What he has failed to realize is that the effect he wanted could not be achieved by the method he chose. Despite the headlines and media attention, which will benefit the reporters who broke the story, the underlying debate within America will not change.  The reason it will not be changed by Mr. Snowden’s statement is that the question was answered by 11 September 2001.  We may disagree with how the Government and the NSA are executing their strategy, but the American public has not changed or gotten past the attack. Perhaps closure will come when the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War finish for American forces. However, closure will not come from Mr. Snowden’s statement.


In the end, we see a classic case of a whistleblower that has confused a cathartic personal statement with a public call for action.  He would have been wiser to consider the state of the American mind before he risked his future.  One hopes that other whistleblowers will consider what they can achieve with the methods they choose before they act. Once you have acted, there is no turning back.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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2 Responses to Snowden’s public resignation as a whistle blower: lessons for changing an organisation?

  1. openpcc says:

    Whistleblowers are gaining more ground now-a-days. I am considered a constant threat to British Policing as I got to see and hear things that most Police employees never do and what made me speak out was the constant intimidation to keep me silent. What started of as a minor issue has got bigger and bigger simply because I dug my heels in the more I was pressured into silence. Would I do the same thing again, yes. But a warning I would give to any organization that is faced with a report or information from an employee, even if you do not like what you hear, listen. The big scandals we are hearing now could have been avoided if dealt with fairly at source. If you do not listen the chance is you will be facing an imovable individual like myslelf who will simply take the message wider and wider until someone does something. Good managers are brilliant listeners. No one wants to be a whistleblower and no organization wants an employee to be one.


    • Thanks for the comment and sharing your story. I agree that social media is making it easier to be a whistleblower and changing what whistleblowing means. I do not think that organisations want to avoid them. Most organisations are not learning organisations and they are usually opaque to themselves. As a result, they often suppress bad news and managers are promoted by their ability to convey good news, which makes them appear to be delivering their work as well as making the company feel good about itself. To put it directly, when was a manager promoted for being a good listener? Instead, they get promoted because they suppress the bad news and make sure the senior managers hear the good news. In this they reinforce what senior managers want to hear. They may say they want to be challenged, but that is only a surface statement, to make themselves feel like they are doing something, when they really want to hear good news. After all, good news means less work and less need to try to change the organisation.

      Instead of learning from their employees and giving scope for their employees to have a voice, most organisations are very good at satisficing. By that I mean, they do enough to keep enough of the bad news known or diluted so that organisation can function. Like an functioning alcoholic, they get through the day by taking a few drinks of “good news” and that allows them to handle the occasions when bad news emerges.

      With Mr. Snowden, it appears he has done this more for his personal catharsis rather than in a hope or belief he is going to change the NSA or the USA. In the end, not much will have changed but he can tell himself he did the right thing even though it meant nothing changed. He will have his book deal after prison and his speaking tour. He will be a political celebrity for his “stand” for “internet freedom”. In that regard, I am not sure he is a true whistleblower. He has taken risks and he has done something public, but has it uncovered wrong doing or changed the way an organisation worked? In the end, the answer to those questions are no.
      Thanks again for reading the blog and your comment.


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