Bulldogs Under the Carpet

intro Maciej Kisilowski, Assistant Professor of Law and Public Management at CEU Business School,talks about his case series, Bulldogs Under the Carpet. The series profiles the political struggle between Agora Corporation, the publisher of Poland's largest daily, and the government headed by leftist Prime Minister Leszek Miller.

How did you identify the need for this case?

The initial motivation for this case came when designing a new course, Legal, Political and Policy Environment of the Market (LPPE), focusing on effective (and legal) management of business-government interactions in weak-governance environments. I reviewed dozens of cases, looking for ones that feature realistic situations of businesses dealing with governments, both in their role as regulators and of purchasers of products or services, and was surprised by how few cases deal with these issues at the level of sincerity and complexity that makes the classroom experience relevant to real life (HBS Gazprom and INSEAD's Lobbying in Brussels were two notable exceptions).

Why the Agora scandal?

While looking for my 'missing case' I realised that the story presented in a chapter of my Yale Law School doctoral dissertation had everything I was looking for: a regulatory process in a transitional economy marked by a confusing confluence of (pseudo-)policy talk, obscure legal technicalities, narrow political agendas, high-stakes economic interests, and ultimately, a monumental corruption scandal.
To make things even more attractive, the story is by far the best-documented regulatory process I've ever researched, for three reasons. First, the business entity threatened by the regulation in question happened to be Agora Co., the publisher of Poland's major daily, so there was intense media coverage as the story unfolded. 

Even more importantly, a bribery extraction attempt that took place almost a year into the Agora-government confrontation triggered something of a Polish Watergate. A special Investigative Committee of the Polish Parliament organized several dozen public hearings on the issue, scrutinizing not only the bribery attempt, but, more importantly for me, the earlier law-making phase. Thousands of pages of sworn testimonies offer an unparalleled insight into the nitty-gritty of how the regulation was drafted and how various political and business players tried to influence the process.

Lastly, I was a little lucky. The Agora CEO happened to be a fellow Yale alumna and proved exceptionally open to my rather outrageous requests for her correspondence with some senior Cabinet officials. But that was not the end of my good fortune. While studying at Princeton, I happened to become neighbours with a visiting professor who was also an editor-in-chief of the Agora daily!

Why a case series?

I don't like the cases that give students the whole story right away. It is very artificial as, in today's world, uncertainty is one of the key features of a work environment for almost any professional. The series format challenges students to analyse and make determinations without full information, which is, again, how the real world works. Furthermore, confronting students with the facts (what happened next and what were the actual consequences) can have a powerful pedagogical effect, especially if the further developments demonstrate that students' choices and suggestions were initially off the mark. I believe that presenting students with the concrete ending of the story underlies the point that while there may be many good responses to a managerial problem, some responses are unequivocally bad.

Writing the case

Not long after I started writing the case I realised yet another reason why there are so few case studies on business-government interaction in regulatory processes. It turned out to be devilishly difficult to present the story in a way that combines the goal of presenting the true nature of these regulatory situations, with producing material that will be usable in class. For example, business-government negotiations over draft regulations are not a nicely structured policy discussion, instead, they normally consist of both sides exchanging innumerable drafts of key legal provisions, with each draft introducing tiny but consequential modifications to a previous version.

While the drafts are produced by lawyers, the negotiations must be conducted by managers. The latter must thereby gain a basic understanding of the strange and ever-changing legalese. To skip the 'version-management' aspect of regulatory negotiations would be like saying to students: "we will show what you can expect in real-life regulatory process, except for the most important part (because, sorry, it's too complicated)." It took several attempts and many hours of consultations with students and colleagues to create what I hope is a manageable way of presenting the evolution of the draft regulation in question.

Securing release

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While conducting my field research, I was fortunate to receive a lot of goodwill from Agora. But the research was done on the assumption that the product would be used in a doctoral dissertation. The moment I decided to adapt it into a case, I knew that convincing Agora executives to release the material for this new use may be challenging. And challenging it was, it took us almost 5 months to reach the agreement. I am infinitely grateful to Agora for their final 'ok,' and for the unwavering support of my Dean, Professor Mel Horwitch. 

It is important to emphasize that while Agora made a number of mistakes in managing its confrontation with the government, it did not pay the bribe and revealed the scandalous offer it received to the public. Yet the political row, bribery attempts and long hours of live-broadcasted testimonies made the whole affair very unpleasant for Agora executives. Paradoxically, though, the personal toll that the story exerted on my Agora partners was, for me, a major argument for the publication of the case. "Since you suffered so much because of this," I said to one Agora executive, "wouldn't it make sense to now use this experience to help young people who may face a similar situation in their managerial careers?" 

Why re-enact the situation dealt with in the case as a movie?

I believe that if my class does not create a mix of intellectual and emotional stimuli that make my participants feel like THEY are the characters of a case we discuss, if they don't leave the room truly disturbed by the complexity and messiness of the managerial situation we analysed, then I am failing in my job. I think multimedia can make the task of creating such an 'artificial reality' much easier.

Our short movie is based on a secret recording of a conversation during which Agora was asked to pay the bribe, it is not an interpretation of the reality – it is the reality. My students told me that when watching movie, they feel like they are sitting in the room, listening to a proposal that was as outrageous as it was incongruent. I think that this experience is more useful than even the most engaging reading.

Directed and produced by two student volunteers, Peter Nagy and Codrina Laiu, the movie is very easy to use in class. It's runs for 12 minutes, long enough to engage students and make them experience the intangible aspects of the dynamics of the situation, but at the same time brief enough not to disturb the flow of the class discussion. The teaching note gives a lot of tested suggestions on how to lead the discussion towards the movie, and then continue based on it.

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The teaching note

Another major challenge was the teaching note as I wanted it to serve a number of purposes. First, I thought it'd be helpful to offer a few concrete pedagogical tools for my fellow instructors to manage the complexity of the case. Again, I believe that this complexity is the major strength of this material, as the real-life regulatory processes are nothing short of complex. But that surely puts more responsibility on an instructor, who must manage the class and make sure all students are on board. Thus I test-ran and repeatedly refined a few schemes and figures presented in the teaching note.

Another purpose of the note was to provide assistance for instructors that want to use the case in various ways. The beauty of Bulldogs is that it can be used in many courses: I teach it to my MBA/EMBA students, asking them to identify with Agora executives facing a hostile government and a host of other uncertainties. The case can be equally useful for instructors in schools of public policy, who can invite their students to look at the unfolding drama through the eyes of Poland's Prime Minister – a major character in the case.

An ethics instructor can focus on the bribery part of the story, with the description of the preceding regulatory negations serving as a nuanced context against which students can form more realistic moral intuitions. A business law professor can concentrate on formal aspects of the legislative process, which are quite representative of a country with the Continental system of administrative law.

Case details

Bulldogs Under the Carpet (A): The Scandal Surrounding the Polish Broadcasting Act
Maciej Kisilowski
Central European University (CEU)
Ref 211-023-1

Also available:

Bulldogs Under the Carpet (B)
Ref 211-024-1
Bulldogs Under the Carpet (C)
Ref 211-025-1
Bulldogs Under the Carpet (D)
Ref 211-026-1
DVD
Ref 211-024-3
Teaching note
Ref 211-023-8

The case won the Most Promising Case award at the 2012 Academy of Management Dark Side of Business case competition.

About the authors

Maciej Kisilowski is Assistant Professor of Law and Public Management at CEU Business School, Central European University, Hungary
e kisilowski@ceu.hu

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