Dear Bureaucrat,

I supervise a procurement team. Every month, I’m supposed to sign a form acknowledging “responsibility to authorize and approve only essential obligations and expenditures.” But I can’t know whether each item we purchase is essential. Many of them are highly technical. I told the person in finance who collects the forms that I can’t judge whether any purchase is essential, but she said every account manager needs to sign the form and that includes me. I talked to my boss, and he told me to work it out with finance. I don’t like making these false certifications. It’s not ethical and I’m afraid it sets me up to catch the blame if it turns out one of the technical managers is requisitioning things we don’t need. Signed, George “Cannot Tell a Lie” W.

Dear George,

You are not alone. Government work often pressures us to make certifications that we cannot know the truth of, or that we know are false. Wong and Gerras did a frightening study of the need for Army officers to lie routinely. For example, they found commanders were required to certify their troops completed 297 days of mandatory training, when only 256 days were available for training.

The pressure to certify something you cannot know is more than an affront to your personal ethics. It is an excuse for your agency to not apply real controls that would prevent unnecessary purchases. It is also one more brick in building an agency culture where dishonesty is viewed as normal and necessary.

So what can you do? There’s the idealistic way, the popular way, or the subversive way.

The idealistic way is to work within your agency to eliminate this requirement to lie. Try to engage allies, such as the other people who are required to sign the false certification. This might lead to valuable and fulfilling professional relationships, but do not be surprised if the people you approach are unwilling to make waves.

When you get the issue in front of an official with power to make the change, she might join your effort to improve the process, or she may resist because reform is contrary to her interests. Requiring you to sign the form lets your agency’s officials claim they are assuring only essential items are bought. Eliminating that sham control would increase the risk to the officials of catching the blame if a scandal ever arises about unnecessary purchases. So the idealistic way might solve the problem, plus give you personal fulfillment and get you noticed as a leader, or it might cost you a lot of effort just to get branded a troublemaker.

The popular way is to go along with how things are done; sign the form even though you cannot know if it is true. As you noted, this is unethical and it creates a paper trail that might be used against you if your agency ever needs a scapegoat. But we get used to rationalizing compliance with bad requirements, as in “it’s above my pay grade.” And if others in your agency routinely sign the same false certification, then you have a little safety in numbers. It would be prudent to keep evidence that you presented your concerns to the finance person and your supervisor, and what they told you. If your exchanges with them were oral rather than email, then you can at least record the particulars of those conversations in an email to yourself — the modern version of a memorandum for the record.

The subversive way is to circumvent the requirement to lie. Can you cross out the offending sentence on the form each month before you sign it? Can you write in “Subject to attached explanation” before your signature and then staple on a page clarifying the extent to which you can assure that purchases are essential? On-line forms are harder than paper to hack in this manner, but there may be a field such as “comments” where you can enter text to condition your certification.

The point is to make a change that avoids putting a false certification in the record, while being unobtrusive enough that people up the line will file the form as usual rather than making you re-do it. I have used this method. It is not as heroic as fighting for explicit change, but it avoids creating a paper trail that could be used to make you a scapegoat. It also serves the public interest, because the culture of dishonesty in an agency is built or undermined by a thousand small actions. Whenever you comply with a requirement to lie, it helps lull yourself and your colleagues into accepting “that’s just the way things are done.” And whenever you comply, it shows your agency’s officials that they can depend on employees’ willingness to make false certifications, to cover up for official procedures that don’t work. When you circumvent a requirement to falsify records, that undermines the agency’s culture of dishonesty.

Dear Bureaucrat is a new feature on Federal Times, providing the federal workforce with the opportunity to submit questions about their careers to David S. Reed, founder of the Center for Public Administrators, a 501(c)(3) civil society organization that builds communities of practice in the public sector. Reed has spent 35 years in and around government. He has worked for large contractors, owned a small contractor, and is currently a government employee. He holds a Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School, and is a frequent speaker at public administration conferences. Send your question to DearBureaucrat@PubAdmin.org.