Public Servants & the Public Interest

A few days ago, the Crikey subscriber email asked the question: what is the role of our public servants? They quoted Australia’s most senior public servant, Terry Moran, who in a speech on July 15 commented how the public service provides strong and confidential policy advice to the government, but that some perceive that public servants:

“‘have some duty to the public interest, something beyond, and greater than, the interests of the Government of the day, and where the public interest and the Government’s interests are perceived to conflict, public servants should speak out.”

Crikey asked: should our bureaucrats serve the public interest? Or is that a task that should be left to those who have to answer to the public? I thought I’d put together a few brief thoughts on the issue:

Exactly what is in the public interest is slippery to define. How can one person know what is best for the majority of people? Sure, we’ve all got opinions on how things should or could be done, but who’s to say that my or your or anyone’s way is the right way to do it? An action that is in the best interest of one group of people may be completely against what’s best for another group.

If anyone is going to decide what is in the public interest, it ought to be someone who has been given a mandate to by that same public. And this is what democratic governments, through elections, have. They don’t have a blanket mandate to do whatever the hell they want – there are a series of checks and balances, including an Opposition, the two houses of parliament, and also the media. It’s not just one person making the decisions.

In terms of public interest, governments and ministers have accountability. If we the public don’t like the decisions the government makes on our behalf, we we can vote someone else in to do it. A public servant, with no accountability, has no such mandate to act in what they think the public interest might be. Their duty to the public interest, to answer Crikey‘s question, is to do their job of advising the government of the day on policy (which is in the public interest).

But then is it ever appropriate for a public servant to leak information to the media? I would argue that yes, there are occasions where it is. The government is entitled to govern, definitely, but the decisions they make and they actions they take have to be within the law. When a government, or representative of that government steps outside of the law, no matter how much in the public interest their actions might be, anyone who knows about it has the responsibility to blow the whistle loud and clear.

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