Defining "Public Interest"

The Need for a More Comprehensive Approach to an Ethical Guide

ARTICLE | Sep 27, 2017

By Mike Abels, ICMA-CM

The United States is in an era of designed political "institutional destruction," referred to by advisors to President Trump as "deconstruction of the administrative state" (Krieg 2017; Posner 2017).1,2 An outcome of this era is the erosion of public confidence in government at all levels.

According to polls taken by the PEW Research Center, more than 66 percent of the American public are dissatisfied with the state of the nation, 80 percent do not trust the federal government, and only 34 percent believe their fellow residents have the ability to make wise political decisions. Conversely, more than 70 percent express confidence in their local government.3

Such a dramatic divergence in the public's confidence, coupled with the complete political dysfunction of the federal government, has led writers like former ICMA Executive Director Robert O'Neill to state that local government must now lead the way in policy innovation.

A New Era

Tenet 4 of the ICMA Code of Ethics may be the most important ethical guide for managers in this new era of local government leadership. It instructs managers to operate with the understanding that the "chief function of local government at all times is to serve the best interests of all of the people."

A guideline for the tenet equates length of service to meeting the best interests of all the people. The guideline, however, is extremely limited and does not address the full scope of "serving the best interests of all the people."

Instead of length of service, the key words of Tenet 4, by my definition, are more oriented to a larger concept of the public interest defined by policy addressing community needs, aspirations, values, as well as unmet opportunities for advancing the quality of life for residents.

But the public interest and best interests of all the people are imprecise terms, so if they are to be earnestly followed as an ethical code, it is necessary to develop both community-specific applications that will assist to define the public interest, and then, provide tools for local government to shape public policy that fulfills the public interest.

Possible Definitions

To first identify what is meant by the public interest, several prominent historical and current public administration theorists have developed overarching definitions. Here are samples:

"To do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done. But cannot do at all, or cannot, so well do, for themselves in their separated and individual capacities." —Abraham Lincoln

"Outcome best serving the long-run survival and wellbeing of a social collective construed as a public." —Barry Bozeman, professor and director of the Center for Organization Research and Design, Arizona State University

"Shared interests and shared responsibility." —Janet V. and Robert B. Denhardt, authors of The New Public Service —Serving, Not Steering

"The public good, the real welfare of the great body of people, is the supreme object to be pursued." —James Madison

Necessary Tools

These definitions provide broad concepts—community, shared, long-run, and collective—that constitute the public interest, but they are not specific enough to guide explicit policy initiatives. To construct policy that focuses on the public interest, managers must use three additional tools:

Strategic planning. The public interest is focused on the whole community and can be determined through comprehensive strategic planning. Through strategic planning, strategic community issues and goals necessary to accomplish those issues become the policy umbrella that identifies the public interest for the community.

Using this broad policy umbrella, specific polices can be designed to meet the public's needs, aspirations, and values, as well as address opportunities for advancing the quality of life within the community.

Sustainability analysis. With a strategic plan in place, policies to accomplish that plan can be designed. Many policies considered by local government have only one alternative that will be considered for legislative adoption.

The principle of sustainability, using community-based economic, social, and environmental criteria to evaluate the policy, is an excellent tool for managers and elected bodies to determine if the policy fulfills the community public interest. Concurrent with sustainability analysis, the local government's administrative/governance capacity to carry out the policy should also be evaluated.

Do resources exist, or can they be acquired, to manage the policy? Are there other organizations tasked with a mission related to the issue? Should a network be used?

Comparative analysis. When local government evaluates several alternatives for addressing a policy issue, comparative analysis may identify the optimum alternative that will fulfill the public interest.

Starting with accurately defining the policy issue or problem, comparative analysis allows the analyst to work with residents and stakeholders to identify the policy alternatives, along with specific community-based criteria used to evaluate the efficacy of the alternatives.

Putting It All Together

Tenet 4 charges local government managers to serve the best interests of the residents who live in the communities they serve. Instead of viewing this tenet through a narrow lens of tenure within a community, managers should address it by searching for the public interest.

Steps that managers can take to learn the best interest of residents involve identifying the broad community interests through strategic planning, and then, based on that plan, using the tools of sustainability and comparative analysis for selecting specific policies that fulfill the best interests of residents.

Endnotes and Resources

1 https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/wp/2017/03/09/want-to-know-what-deconstruction-of-the-administrative-state-looks-like-look-at-trumps-staffing/?utm_term=.78453a115e21.

2 http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/30/politics/trump-bannon-administrative-state/index.html.

3 Two PEW studies: The 80 percent do not trust and 66 percent dissatisfied are from a May 2017 poll and report Public Trust In Government, http://www.people-press.org/2017/05/03/public-trust-in-government-1958-2017. The 34 percent confidence in fellow citizens comes from the November 23, 2015, study Beyond Distrust: How Americans View Their Government, http://www.people-press.org/2015/11/23/beyond-distrust-how-americans-view-their-government.

Michael Abels, D.P.A., ICMA-CM, and a city manager for more than 20 years, is a lecturer in public administration, University of Central Florida, Deland, Florida (mikela@mpinet.net). He is the author of Policy Making in the Public Interest: A Text and Workbook for Local Government (when this article was written it was to be published in the fall of 2017 by Taylor and Francis).

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