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Wednesday, February 26, 2020
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In the public interest



IT used to be that the crème de la crème and the best of the best end up in public service. For the Isko and Iska, public service was payback time; for others, it was a career path. When you do a word cloud analysis on public service today, the associations would often be ethics, accountability, transparency and openness, among others. The proverbial saying “public service is a public trust” comes to mind.

Others would say public service share the “characteristics of a public good (non-rivalrous and non-excludable), but most are services which may be underprovided by the market.” It is service rendered in the public interest. What is public interest then? It is the “welfare of the general public in which the whole society has a stake and which warrants recognition, promotion and protection by the government and its agencies.”

Every generation sees a part of itself working in government. It used to be salary that was not the driving force to join the public sector. But with salary standardization, it has been economically viable to remain in the public sector and build a career as a technocrat. But there are others who stay on because of other reasons. One of which is the ability to corner profitable deals just by being a bureaucrat. Rent-seeking seems to be part and parcel of serving, and earning within the system is becoming more the norm than the exception. Favors are part of the culture. Conflicts of interest are everywhere and delicadeza is ephemeral.

Top agencies eyed by some graduates are the big line agencies like the Department of Education, Department of the Interior and Local Government-Philippine National Police, Department of National Defense and the prestigious Office of the President. The total number of permanent positions for Fiscal Year 2020 is 1,823,228, of which 1,633,180 positions are filled and 190,048 are unfilled.

According to Jobstreet 2018 survey, “8 out of 10 Filipinos have varied degrees of interest when it comes to being part of the civil service corps, with only two people saying they either have zero interest or deliberately avoid working for the government.” The following were the top three agencies Filipinos wanted to work for in 2018: Social Security System, Bureau of Internal Revenue and Department of Public Works and Highways.

Today, being in government is like ending up rich, becoming rich and building one’s wealth portfolio. From the missing container vans in Customs, the National Food Authority’s indecision in building stocks, the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office mess, Good Conduct Time Allowance for sale, etc., every administration has sorry tales left behind. The intricacies of trying to earn a fast buck are mind-boggling.

And we are not even looking at the local government level yet. Imagine if public interest is compromised even just at 10 percent of the 42,045 barangay or 1,489 municipalities or 145 cities and 81 provinces. And talk about ghost employees packing the organization to the brim. What is left of Laswell’s politics, or who gets what, when and how?

Meritocracy has been set aside and replaced by a clique mentality. And you’d think the days of invoking the names of politicians are gone but it is worse than ever today. You get endorsements, intercessions and all its variants. Do your work and you are looked upon as the odd person in the room. What has happened in the past 20 years for us to be in such a rut?

What is in the public interest is gone in favor of earning while the sun is up. There is no shame whatsoever. And this despite of Republic Act (RA) 6713, or the “Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees” and other laws, such as Presidential Decree 46, which makes it “punishable for public officials and employees to receive, and for a private person to give, gifts on any occasion, including Christmas;” RA 3019, or “the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act;” and the Revised Penal Code’s Articles 210, 211 and 212, which deal with direct and indirect bribery.

While public interest “is one of the most used terms in the lexicon of public administration, it is arguably the least defined and least understood and identifying or determining the appropriate public interest in any particular case is often no easy task.” In fact, “centuries of scholarship examine the public interest alongside the ‘common good,’ ‘common interest,’ and ‘public good’ associated with some big names in political philosophy. Common among their thinking was the idea that governments should serve the people, and the people should be the beneficiaries of governing.”

When you spend the first 15 years of your productive life in the public sector and return to it after 20 years and see how much damaged institutions are and how heavy-handed civil servants can be, you wonder if reforms could still be made. And when the Man of La Mancha continues to resonate, then the cause endures.

Can we ever have less abuse and injury in government? Can common good be the order of the day and both elected and appointed public servants move beyond parochial interests to get things going for the nation instead of their private pockets? Can trust be the operating principle for both? Much work remains to be done and we cannot veer away from the path. Blinders and all, we need to always work for the public interest, but in the “long run, the public interest depends on private virtue.”

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Today’s Front Page February 26, 2020

Today’s Front Page February 26, 2020