Josef Korbel School of International Studies - Ethics of Engagement

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Thomas Schelling testifies before Congress in October, 1969

Date Submitted: 6/16/2020

Question summary:

Proper disclosure vs. taking credit for behind-the-scenes policy advice

Full question:

I was recently asked to advise policymakers on legislation related to my area of academic expertise. I worked closely with legislative staff on specific language, reviewing drafts and proposing edits over the last year. The legislation now stands to become law. I'd love to write something for a public-facing outlet about the bill if it passes -- what it would change, what it means for the subject I study -- which I would want to do even if I had absolutely nothing to do with the process. How should I proceed? Do I disclose my role, and if so, how? Do I talk to the legislative staff about this? I truly don't need any "credit," but I want to do what's appropriate in this kind of situation. (Of course, writing nothing is also an option, but as someone who can analyze and contextualize this policy for the public, I am interested to try.) Thank you for your guidance!

Response 1

This is tricky. From the standpoint of your public audience, we would want to know that you weren’t just analyzing the legislation you wrote about but that you participated in its creation, since you do have a personal stake in what we think about it. From the standpoint of your serving as a resource to the legislative staff in the future, which presumably is something you would want to do, the question is whether your writing about it would lead them to be less likely to work with you on the next piece of legislation. My suggestion would be to give the staff a heads up that you will be writing a piece on the legislation, and in the piece or in the place where you identify yourself, you can say that you worked with staff on the legislation, without taking specific credit for specific aspects of it. You might even send the staff an advance copy of the piece as a courtesy, but you don’t want to put yourself in a position where they think they have control over what you write. Sounds like it will be a very interesting piece! Congratulations on the role you played in the legislative outcome.

Response 2

Since you were directly involved in helping create this piece of legislation, it’s great that you’re getting a gut check on any potential ethical issues that might arise from further public-facing engagement on the legislation itself. In this case, though, I don’t see any ethical red flags. You were part of the legislative drafting process in your capacity as an expert and, in my view, that same expert capacity is a perfectly reasonable and worthwhile perspective from which to comment on the legislation. It would be courteous to inform the legislative staff that you plan to comment. It would also be right, I think, to disclose your involvement in the drafting process in any public writing on the legislation itself. That would help to prevent against any possible allegation of conflict of interest, even though I don’t think such criticism could be fairly leveled here. Your perspective as an expert on this topic has clearly been valuable in the policy (legislative) process and, in my view, it would be doubly so in any public writing you engaged in to help explain the context and consequences of the legislation.


Response 3

I don’t see a problem with writing something about the benefits of the legislation. The key, in my view, is being transparent about your involvement. I would suggest taking advantage of that to say not only what would change and what it means for your field, but also why you saw fit to work on this. I would simply be honest about what drew you to support the process. Letting staff know you are writing something might be good, though, and I would avoid anything that sounds like you are taking credit.