In pursuit of the truly public service

In pursuit of the truly public service

John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech was a call for commitment and responsibility: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” It doesn’t matter whether “your country” is a nation-state or a colony or a dependency: “Country” means people living together with as much agreement and sense of common interest as possible. At the heart of that life is the public service.

Young people enter the public service for one of two reasons: for security of employment (with a pension at the end of it) or because they want to render a service to their fellow citizens. The two reasons are not mutually incompatible, but entry to the public service usually means forgoing the rewards of the marketplace.

When Ireland was a predominantly rural society, with primogeniture, the most likely career choice for a younger son or daughter was traditionally the church (priest or nun), the banks, or the civil service. All of them conferred status on the family, and security for the incumbent.

I worked for 25 years in the Irish national broadcasting service, starting in the days before deregulation and privatization. We were national in every sense, but, even more, we were the custodians of public service broadcasting, a powerful medium in political, social and cultural terms.

My colleagues in broadcasting, from the director-general to the office receptionist, from the director of the newsroom to the cleaning staff, were deeply committed to our common ideal: producing and transmitting radio and television programs of excellence and safeguarding the independence and impartiality of those who did so.

That’s why, in 2013, I was so astonished that the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation, or ERT as it is commonly known, had been taken off the air. Quite apart from the insult to the broadcasters, Antonis Samaras’ abrupt action was a direct threat to the fragile concept of public service broadcasting, provoking an international outcry (the director-general of the European Broadcasting Union called it “the worst kind of censorship”).

I am well aware that nepotism and corruption have been pillars of the Greek public service for many decades, perhaps even since the founding of the state. I am also aware that reform of these abuses and the introduction of meritocracy have been a priority which constantly fails to meet its targets.

I don’t subscribe to the idea that all civil servants are obstructive or self-serving. But the system itself is mismanaged, which means that the area of reform most vital is the “culture of management.” Is that the responsibility of politicians? And, if so, which ones? I doubt if anyone in political life, in Greece or anywhere else, has the wisdom to know how to effect that kind of change.

The long-term goal of a public service should be the improvement of the quality of life for one’s fellow citizens. It means risk management, and the management of people’s happiness and unhappiness. On the road towards that goal, one must be efficient, caring and responsive. And we must believe in what we are doing.

The point where an action is decided upon for “the greater good” will inevitably mean that for some it will be a “lesser good,” that it will benefit some and possibly hurt others. The responsibility of the conscientious public servant is to maximize the public good and to eliminate, as far as possible, the damage to one’s fellow citizens, especially the vulnerable, the mute and the marginalized.

The ethics of public service demands that even when you dislike your fellow citizens, you nevertheless love them – a difficult emotional and professional somersault, but necessary. This is a non-negotiable, absolute prerequisite throughout the public service, from the top posts to the most menial.

You might be no higher than a concierge in the national opera house, but you should aspire to be the best opera concierge in the world. Public service can, and often must, be dull, routine procedure. The possibility, even at the highest level – for example secretary-general or ambassador – that one can “make a difference” is given to very few, and deserved by even fewer. And achieved by almost none.

The great Irish theater director Tyrone Guthrie said that the important job was to stop the bush encroaching on the backyard. Most public service is just that. We get on with the job, clearing the undergrowth of misunderstanding, conflict and mistrust. That’s all most of us can hope to do.

Worse than the obstructionists are those who use the system for their own gain or who refuse to be accountable for their actions. Recently in Ireland we had the experience of the chief executive of the national Football Association – a state-funded body – sitting in virtual silence for a number of hours before a parliamentary tribunal investigating his and the organization’s financial misconduct.

As one newspaper reported, “he consigned himself to the long list of men and women in public life who have ably played the game of evasion.” We can call it “lies of silence” or just plain arrogance, the knowledge that the system will protect you from scrutiny.

The politics of sport, or culture, or public administration, can be either open or closed. The aim of any government intent on reform in the public service must be to make it as open as possible. Just saying this makes me feel like Diogenes the Cynic, wandering Athens in daylight with a lamp, looking for an honest man.

Richard Pine was voted “Critic of the Year” in the 2018 Irish Journalism Awards. He lives and works in Corfu, and is the author of “Greece Through Irish Eyes.”

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.