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Designated Scapegoats: A “Solution” to Avoid

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas E. Poulin
February 19, 2024

Public agencies exist in a dynamic, sometimes chaotic, environment. Demand is often high, and pressures are sometimes intense. There are many times when activities fail to achieve organizational goals for efficacy, efficiency or responsiveness. Ideally, agency leadership will use past issues as learning moments, leveraging them into continuous process improvements. Unfortunately, in some instances, agencies instead shift to finding someone to blame—a scapegoat, which serves no one.

The Designated Scapegoat

Imagine what this process might look like as a formalized position within an agency. The Designated Scapegoat might be perceived as bringing great benefit. Rather than wasting time dissecting what went wrong, with everyone in emotional turmoil for fear of being held accountable, they could move forward—if only they had someone to blame. Instead of looking for a particular individual, team or organizational decision to fault, imagine the time and effort saved if there were someone pre-designated to carry the blame, regardless of their role, authority or level of engagement. Everyone could simply point the finger at the Designated Scapegoat, then seek other ways to move forward, without further fear of individual or collective accountability.

Even if they were to fail again in the future, the Designated Scapegoat would be eagerly standing by to provide cover for any mishaps. This would be seen as beneficial to both employees and the agency, removing an element of a potentially toxic environment which might otherwise create chaos and conflict, liberating everyone to move forward without hindrance.

Oddly, this arrangement would be a positive for the Designated Scapegoat. Since their function would be to assume all blame, the more things went wrong, the more blame they would carry, and therefore the better they would be doing their job. Conceptually, if they accepted the blame for an unimaginable catastrophe, the Designated Scapegoat might be eligible for employee of the year for their outstanding contribution. It would be a win-win proposition. And, as an additional bonus for the Designated Scapegoat, this individual could work in a fully remote location on a wholly flexible schedule, promoting a strong personal life-balance.

Back to Reality

Hopefully, this argument is viewed as the satire it is. Previously, this has been proposed in both academic settings and professional training sessions simply as a point of reflection. In all instances, it has been readily recognized as absurdist, but these discussions have always acknowledged the underlying dark truth of the message.

Too often, organizations create environments which are entirely risk averse, treating failure—and sometimes just slightly imperfect results—as a powerful negative which must be identified, vilified and punished ruthlessly. In such an environment, pointing the finger of blame becomes endemic, and the ability to do so quickly and forcefully becomes a critical skill in career progression. A culture focused on assigning individual blame for the slightest fault is one unlikely to support the risk-taking associated with the experimentation needed for continuous process improvement.

Our communities expect us always to do better. They expect us to find means to make service delivery more effective, more efficient and more responsive. To achieve this, we must ensure we remain mission focused, constantly challenging ourselves to find a better way forward. This means accepting, if not embracing, some level of the uncertainty associated with experimentation, as agencies must experiment to determine what a better approach might be.

What might this mindset look like in a real-life example? Thomas John Watson, Sr., former chairman and CEO of IBM, once remarked, “Recently, I was asked if I was going to fire an employee who made a mistake that cost the company $600,000. No, I replied, I just spent $600,000 training him. Why would I want somebody to hire his experience?” Rather than engaging in seeking to assign blame, Watson viewed it as a learning experience for both the employee and the organization. A positive, mature, proactive mindset.

Would Watson have continued to support this type of loss if repeated often? Probably not, especially if the failures were related to demonstrable ongoing non-performance, incompetence or malintent. However, these are unlikely to be widespread in any public agency. Recognizing that problems and failures might occur, then using these as learning moments which might smooth future progress, is a sign of maturity both of the culture and the leadership of public agencies.


Public agencies in all settings have two characteristics in common: unlimited problems and limited resources. To achieve long-term, lasting success in meeting the needs and expectations of our communities, they must constantly challenge themselves to determine if they are using the most effective, efficient and responsive approaches, experimenting with new approaches constantly as a means of continuous process improvement.

There will be “bumps in the road,” contributing to inefficiencies and occasional failures. These must be analyzed, but only with the intent of further process improvements. If the intent shifts to the assignment of blame—a focus on finding a scapegoat for failure—agencies will be failing their organization, their workforce and their communities.

Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, SHRM-CP, IPMA-CP is a training and development consultant and independent scholar. He is Past President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA. He served over 30 years in local government, and has been teaching at the graduate level since 2004. He may be reached at [email protected]

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