Public sector is the place on which the people still want to rely heavily. And, in many of the developed countries, public sector continues to deliver the goods insofar as public service delivery is concerned.
In most Organisations for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) countries, public servants’ conduct is guided by the public sector values. In fact, the values should be formulated according to specific country contexts, and should be balanced against one another when they conflict at times so that public interest carries the day at the end of the day.
In this piece of mine, light would be shed upon public sector values espoused by OECD countries which have bearing upon our public service as well. Honesty is the first among the values and it is vital. It is, in fact, expected in all sectors of society and it represents a very special meaning in the public service. It implies the ability to hold a public trust and to put the common good ahead of any private or personal self-interest. Usually, many countries incorporate the standard of honesty in the recruitment process of civil servants and verify that the person does not have a prior criminal record, which is followed in Bangladesh as well.
On top of non-discrimination on ethnic, religious, gender, or economic grounds, the main aspect of the value of impartially is political neutrality, that is, non-partisanship. Civil servants are supposed to remain loyal to their political leadership. Concurrently, however, they are expected to behave in a manner that does not favour or harm any political party or faction. Though this value is shown high value in the OECD countries, it has been diluted to a degree in our context due to over-politicisation of bureaucracy.
In a democratic setting, loyalty to the political leadership is a bounden duty of the civil servants. However, it crosses its limit when it implies unethical behaviour. This becomes obvious when the order given is illegal. The crucial point to be noted here is that loyalty should end when obedience runs the risk of jeopardising a public interest or requires unethical behaviour, though not formally illegal. In fact, in a complex environment prevailing in societies like ours, this principle is also challenged when public servants are asked to be eventually accountable to the citizens.
Civil servants are meant to ensure stable and continuous services to citizens. Continuity of civil servants implies that they cannot desert their office and can only have other professional activities other than their public duties in limited cases, which are not at odds with performance of their tasks. Under Article 101 of the Japanese National Public Service Ethics Law of 1999, civil servants are bound to give total attention to duty. Another facet of continuity is that when leaving their position, public officials would not hide or remove any information regarding their past activity so as to ensure a smooth transition in the office.
Government officials have a common tendency not to release information. Sometimes, there may be good reasons. However, secrecy works as a way to conceal misconduct. It is, thus, the duty of the State to define clearly what information is public and to guarantee access to it. For example, the openness and transparency of the Swedish public administration, enshrined in the Freedom of the Press Act, have contributed to lessen corruption in the public sector. In Italy, measures increasing transparency were one of the most useful instruments in encouraging integrity and overturning corruption.
However, in countries where democracy was restored recently, transparency was found to be the key means to achieve modernisation. For example, the Republic of Korea created a new legal framework by enacting a Law on Administrative Procedures (1997) to furnish information of administrative decision making for citizens, and passed a law on freedom of information. The outcome of openness is comprehensive control exercised by the citizens and all the more by the mass media. In fact, mass media can play a very positive and catalytic role in providing plethora of information to the masses. Bangladeshi media can claim fair amount of credit in this regard.
However, the obligation of openness must be balanced by the value of discretion. It does mean that public officials should have clear guidelines about what information they are entitled to provide and to whom. In this respect, Article 100 of the Japanese National Public Service Ethics Law of 1999 prohibits the disclosure of any secret that may have come to employees’ knowledge in the performance of their duties. Other countries have similar provisions. Bangladesh has a Freedom of Information Act in place. However, its effectiveness is yet to be noticeable due to lack of public awareness and officials’ seriousness.
The values of responsibility and accountability are crucial. If an official is responsible enough, the issue of accountability should not bother him or her much as he or she will hardly hurt the organisation. Developing a good sense of the public interest is, however, essential to make this happen. In the Republic of Korea, it has been suggested that a weak sense of responsibility among public officials, caused by frequent change in posts, was a major corruption incentive. However, this system is used extensively in the civil services to prevent the civil servants from developing over familiarity with the local people.
The values stated above have become universal public sector values for safeguarding and promoting the public interest. In fact, all developed countries, and many developing countries, have explicit provisions for upholding the public interest. The Canadian Conflict of Interest and Post-Employment Code for Public Office Holders stipulate that public office holders, in fulfilling their official duties and responsibilities, shall make decisions in the public interest and as regards the merits of each case. In fact, the issue of public interest is a universal need and demand among the citizens all over the world.
Though views of what the public interest means vary in different countries, employees are expected to arrange their private affairs accordingly and rationally. The Canadian instruction in this regard is that if a conflict arises between the private interests of an employee and the official duties and responsibilities of that employee, the conflict shall be resolved in favour of the public interest. However, if we look at this issue with our lenses, that is, by taking Bangladesh scenario into consideration, we will have to be rather disappointed; because, the private interest still takes precedence over the public interest in our ambience.
The writer is a Professor, Department of Public Administration, Chittagong University.E-mail: email@example.com