Public Service and the Public Trust

During the postal lock-out/strike, I remember reading about it each and every day. As so often happens with me, I was walking home and would be engrossed in the latest update on the lock-out/strike.

And every day, I would check my mail box at my house, and think to myself, “Weird. No mail.”

One of my fears had come true – I had become complacent. Despite the fact that I had been reading about the ongoing debate, it was theoretical to me. It didn’t occur to me (for two weeks) that the reason I wasn’t getting mail was because of this ongoing event.

The Governor General recently gave a speech to the Canadian Bar Association where he discussed how the profession needs to heal itself. One of the most interesting comments he made was that lawyers (across the world) are responsible “for contributing to the collapse of trust between citizens and public institutions.”

That got me thinking – what about Public Servants? Have we contributed to the collapse of the trust between citizens and public institutions? What role do we play in upholding this trust?

Lawyers are part of a system (the judiciary), which has as a central pillar the idea of independence from the Executive branch of government. Public Servants, however, do not have such a separation. We are, rightfully, subservient (within the law) to our Ministers.

The Values and Ethics Code lays out for Public Servants what our actual role is. It does so, however, in broad terms. How each Public Servant chooses to adopt that code, and make it real, depends on a whole host of factors (personal background/beliefs, context, etc) and internal departmental policies.

But at what point do we become complacent and decide to hide behind the Code? (e.g. “I’ve done everything *I* can do within the code. It’s up to my ADM now…”)

At what point do we get so involved with the intricacies of our jobs that we forget about the bigger picture? (e.g. “I’ve made me decision on my area of responsibility. What happens from here…”)

At what point do we lose our courage? (e.g. “I could say something about this, but I need this DG’s recommendation to move to my next job…”)

I hear people talk about Values and Ethics all the time, but it seems like people very rarely actually try to live the values. They treat them as another set of departmental guidelines or a policy, rather than looking at them for deeper guidance on our very function as Public Servants.

The problem is that in some cases, if we truly hold these values, it may require a measure of self-sacrifice. This may take the form of a career-limiting move through telling a senior official advice that they may not want to hear. It may involve using the various channels we have available to us to ensure that wrongdoing does not go unnoticed within the Public Service. Most terrifyingly, it may require us to say “No.” when we see an instance of wrongdoing. To quote one of my favourite shows, “A truly self-sacrificing act usually involves some sacrifice” – and it would seem that most of us are willing to live the values, so long as it doesn’t cost us anything.

In these instances, it would appear that Public Servants are their own enemy. I’m not talking about scandals that have a political bent to them. Think back to the Integrity Commissioner issue that we dealt with not so long ago. That was a Public Servant.  

While the GG may place some of the blame for the breakdown of trust between citizens and public institutions on lawyers, there is plenty of blame to go around. I wonder how much of this blame might be rightly placed on the Public Service as well. And if we do shoulder some of the blame, how do we go about fixing it?

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2 thoughts on “Public Service and the Public Trust

  1. Great post Colin. Thanks for sharing.

    As I heard once from a senior editor at Maclean’s: You won’t hear McDonald’s dissing Burger King’s burgers, or vice versa. Because neither of them wins. But you will hear Political parties dissing each other, because it’s a cut-throat race to the bottom. And while they race down there, they tear each other to parts and the public thinks they’re both crooks. All the while the public service gets dragged down with them.

    Public servants have notions they are accountable to the public, but you nailed it correctly, they are subservient (within the law) to their ministers. While public servants work in the shadows behind their ministers, the shadow cast can be a daunting one, that when they peak out they may think they’re part of the political machinery, when clearly (to us) public servants are part of the machinery of government. This distinction is not always clear or known.

    Those on Twitter seem to know the difference when they #hashtag either #cdnpoli or #goc. I really think it’s the politics that gets the bad rap; the public service and its 250K+ public servants are harder to paint with the same stroke. Sure there are lazy public servants and criminal ones, but what large organisations doesn’t?

  2. Thank you for your great article.

    As a union steward, i understand the notion of sacrifice. The choice we made to become steward, and help our fellow PS, sometime put a cross on our career opportunities.

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