Drawing A Line In The Public Interest

By Jason Bowns

During an Associated Press banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria, Mark Twain once quipped, “No public interest is anything other or nobler than a massed accumulation of private interests.”

Photo Credit: www.historyofredding.com
Photo Credit: http://www.historyofredding.com

Today, public servants are universally bound to protect this broad public interest. Those officials include elected leaders, career civil service members and political appointees, among others.

The American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) Code of Ethics reminds us, “Advance the public interest. Promote the interests of the public and put service to the public above service to oneself.”

Members of the media are also duty-bound to defend the public interest. The Code of Ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) notes that “Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.”

What exactly does the public interest mean? Is it a sum of many parts, or is it something larger than us all? Is it the lesser of enumerated evils, or is it the greatest good? Is what’s best for the public interest always the same as what’s best for you? It may even be hard to choose.

Photo Credit: www.arb.ca.gov
Photo Credit: http://www.arb.ca.gov

In 1789, the First Congress proposed to amend the U.S. Constitution with a Bill of Rights enacted “…as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.” These rights fortified the people’s faith in the government.

Just this past week, the New York Times published an op-ed by Chelsea Manning, writing from Fort Leavenworth. While leaking classified documents was illegal, she claimed to have acted “out of a love for my country and a sense of duty to others.” Warning that the military still lacks adequate transparency and accountability, she concluded with a glaring fact: “Opinion polls indicate that Americans’ confidence in their elected representatives is at an all-time low.”

Edward Snowden faces a similar dilemma after publicly releasing top-secret American intelligence documents. Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, has defended him by noting, “Snowden’s disclosures are a true constitutional moment, where the press has held the government to account using the First Amendment, when the other branches refused.”

Sometimes, the public interest is in the eye of the beholder. Individual actors may concurrently claim to act in the public interest, yet they choose divergent paths. They may defend different public interests – such as the right to know, obedience to the law or national security.

Does one interest ever trump the other? Does national security ever trump obedience to the law, and does the public have a right to know everything?

Questions like these have serious implications for public administration.

Public administrators must define the public interest in order to know what exactly they defend. Obeying the laws and upholding state and federal constitutions are inherent in this; but there may still be grey areas and organizational practices which run counter to the public interest.

Public administrators are the lifeblood of the government, putting its ideas and words into motion, sculpting smoke and mirrors into form and substance.

Cicero, a famed Roman orator, lauded patriotism as the greatest virtue in the Roman Republic of his own time, adding:

Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

“Nor is it sufficient to possess this virtue as an art, unless we reduce it to practice.”

Rather than running from one crisis to the next, the public must hold onto its own interest in the people – in service to one another and to our core American ideals. The public must find faith in state and federal governments, whether by supporting existing leaders or by choosing new ones.

People sometimes forget that they are a part of the government, not apart from it.

As recipients of government services, the public comprises the hub of public administration. Indeed, it’s the public which public administration exists to serve.

We the people forget that most of us want the same thing: what’s in all of our best interests.

We should not believe the ignoble lie that we are helpless to lead the world towards change.

Manning critiques the government for thwarting balanced media coverage, but the public too often chooses to believe information read or heard, without a more searching inquiry. The news is not the cure for this scarred public confidence we face. Activist Noam Chomsky has even asserted that major media’s primary role is “manufacturing consent” among the masses.

Conversations must consider what the public wants, instead of telling it what to want. The public must use its voice – not through a media which speaks, but instead by speaking for itself.

Perhaps then the public will better learn to defend its own interest and to trust in itself.


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