Refugee Ban: A Policy Management Disaster

Corporations have every right, and often a duty, to push forward with new, unpopular policies. A significant part of any corporate compliance officer’s job is to help with exactly that unpleasant task.

Still, what America witnessed this weekend with the Trump Administration’s refugee ban is among the worst policy management failures we’ve ever seen. Regardless of your views about the policy itself—and it does have worthy arguments—this was an awful example of poor leadership and organizational change. It will be a case study for the ages, the perfect demonstration to compliance officers and other senior executives of how not to implement change.

Mistake 1: No Communication

First, President Trump either ignored or misunderstood the nature of what he was doing with the ban. This wasn’t merely a matter of new policy or action. Trump was asking America to subordinate one of its most deeply held values—that we are a nation welcoming to the downtrodden—to protecting ourselves from outside threats.

Could a president sell that sort of request? Possibly. But Trump did need to sell it: to explain to people what he wants to achieve, why it is important, and why this specific policy is worth the price. Because subordinating a value like “welcome the downtrodden” to public safety seems really expensive to millions of Americans.

Trump did none of those things. He sat behind a desk at the Oval Office, and signed an important-looking executive order with a flourish of his pen. Then he vanished from public view.

Compliance officers spend a lot of time talking about leadership, values, culture, and change. We all go to the same conferences and hear the same webinars; we all know the lingo. We all know what I’m about to say is true: a leader points to a goal, and tells his audience why that goal is important to achieve. A leader is patient, persuasive, and respectful. A leader is present and participates in the conversation—over and over, even when she privately wants to gouge out her own eyes because some people still don’t get it. Then the leader tries again.

A president (or CEO) who sits behind a desk and signs policy documents isn’t leading. He is dictating orders and expecting others to obey. Which brings us to our next mistake…

Mistake 2: Flawed Implementation

Trump and his team had no plan to implement the refugee ban on a practical basis. Or, in the language of compliance-speak: they ordered a change in procedure without first having a process in place to make it happen.

Apparently neither the Justice Department nor the Department of Homeland Security reviewed the executive order for the refugee ban ahead of time, to alert Trump to practical challenges. The Office of Legal Counsel didn’t review the order to ensure its language didn’t violate federal law somehow. The State Department had no time to implement new procedures (call them compensating controls) to handle questions from suddenly visa-less travelers around the world.

As of Sunday afternoon, as I’m writing these words, the Trump Administration had no plan to respond to court orders (which any second-year law student could have seen coming) requiring Customs and Border Protection to release detainees. So different airports around the country are responding in different ways. Everyone seems to make things up as they go along.

That’s because they are making it up as they go along. Because their leader, Trump, didn’t have his deputies plan a viable way to enforce the new policy. Indeed, they deliberately ignored the pre-existing process to adopt a new policy.

Imagine how the board would react to a CEO who orders a new policy, sharply at odds with institutional history and employee values, without planning for its effective implementation. If you were the compliance or audit leader at that company, counseling the board, what would you recommend they do with the CEO?

I think we all know the answer.

Mistake 3: No Feedback

Trump’s first two mistakes were compounded by his third: ignoring the significant public push back against the refugee ban, across the country. Maybe Trump lives in a bubble of his own design, surrounded by sycophants, and doesn’t grasp the depth of opposition. Maybe Trump relishes the confusion he foists on the public. Maybe he doesn’t care about opposition in urban areas, since his political base is in rural America, and they support him.

Regardless, the first statement Trump made after the refugee ban went into effect was a brief statement to the media on Saturday afternoon, saying, “It’s working out very nicely. You see it at the airports, you see it all over.” Finally, late on Sunday, Trump issued another statement standing by his policy. Then he immediatley fired off a few more tweets attacking the Republican senators who questioned the implementation of the ban.

Yes, millions of Americans watching Fox and reading Brietbart News will agree with Trump. Millions others will watch their local news with protests nationwide, and wonder, Does this man even understand what’s happening in his own country?

Leaders have a duty to lead their whole audience, not just the part that agrees with them. So we’re back to disconnection from culture, back to flawed implementation, back to out-of-touch CEOs who either don’t know or don’t care what’s happening on the ground.

That’s not how good policy management works. That’s why this is such a rich lesson for compliance officers, board directors, and senior executives. The roll out of this policy has been a mess from start to finish.

Mistake 4: Wasted Opportunity

The sad part is that none of this had to happen. Trump’s refugee ban isn’t without merit. Radical Islamic terrorists do want to kill Americans. Exploiting our generosity to immigrants and refugees is one way they might do that. Maybe we should tighten oversight of that process, like Trump suggested.

More than a few of Trump’s proposals, and those of Republicans in Congress, are worthy ideas that speak to American anxieties. They deserve attention.

But even the best policies can die through incompetent policy management—and this weekend, incompetence was all Trump and his inner circle gave us. Corporations facing change have much to learn from it.

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