Ethics and aesthetics in Public Administration

• Public Service as a profession If anyone acts in a spirit of public service, then (paradigmatically) it is the public servants. So, it may seem obvious that public servants belong squarely within the world of the professions rather than that of the market.

• Public Service as a profession

If anyone acts in a spirit of public service, then (paradigmatically) it is the public servants. So, it may seem obvious that public servants belong squarely within the world of the professions rather than that of the market.

Yet, the institutional settings within which professional public servants are required to act create some unique challenges.

First, public servants are unique in having employers who claim a right to define what constitutes the public interest. I recall meeting with a senior political adviser, working with the Prime Minister of one of our near-neighbours, who explained to me that the democratic mandate provided to their government authorised it to define the public good as it thought fit.

While conceding that her government had the power so to act, I asked her to consider that having invoked the idea of democracy as the source of legitimacy, then her government was presumably bound to act only in a manner that was consistent with the principles and practice of democracy.

For example (I suggested), no government could claim the legitimacy of democracy while at the same time refusing education to a section of its polity (say, people with some disabilities).

Denied an education, people with disabilities would effectively be disenfranchised. The same might be said in relation to the withholding of access to health care… or any other of the goods that enable a citizen to participate in a democratic polity.

The point is a simple one: elected politicians are quick to invoke their democratic mandate as a reason for requiring the Public Service to be responsive.

However, they rarely address the issue of what should be done when policies proposed by the political class are themselves inimical to democracy.

My own view is that under no circumstances may the Public Service substitute its judgment for that of those elected to parliament (or equivalent deliberative assemblies).

However, this is not to say that public servants are bound to collude in the commission of acts that they deem to be wrong. In the end … principled resignation is an option.

However, between the twin extremes of collusion and resignation remains what I consider to be the principal duty to provide full and frank advice.

When confronted with the evidence of Singapore’s lack of adequate protection from an attack from the north, Churchill responded by saying, “I did not know, I was not told, I should have asked”.

In modern times, within many countries, it has become common to hear politicians offer two-thirds of Churchill’s reply; namely, “I did not know, I was not told …” Alas, amongst contemporary politicians, the obligation to ask is less commonly recognised than in Churchill’s time. Given this, it is essential that the Public Service give comprehensive advice… based on a competent and sincere attempt to discern the public interest.

In my opinion, the advice should always be developed and tendered to policy makers … whether requested or not.
As noted above, each profession ought to care about and strive to secure a defining good … lawyers should care about justice, doctors and allied health professionals should care about human health and well-being, accountants should care about truth … and so on.

So what is the defining good of public administration? In posing this question I realise that there are many public servants who work as members of the other professions … as doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, nurses and so on … all employed by governments.

But I am interested to reflect on the nature of work done by those engaged predominantly or exclusively in public administration … those who develop and implement policy and programs.

A moment’s reflection leads to the obvious point that while those engaged in public administration may not be directly involved in the provision of distinct public goods, they play an essential role in creating the conditions under which such goods can be delivered.

Whether it is the good of justice, or health, or security … public servants are the midwives to their delivery to the community. I do not know (and have not been able to coin) a simple term that can be applied to the good that I have described … enablement is too lame.

However, I wonder if there is another kind of good that the Public Service can and should deliver; a good that is more closely connected with democracy. (To be continued)

The author is a Development Policy Analyst.