Monday, January 17, 2022

Promoting and Protecting the Individual’s Role in Public Services

Public organizations are known to be guided by their values, charters, legal and institutional instruments that are intended to give mileage towards attainment of the public sector’s overall mandate.

In the realm of public institutions’ capacity to maximize their pursuit of satisfying the citizenry, the role of the individual is often downplayed Vis-├á-vis that of the organization.

Naturally, and maybe even conceptually, it makes sense to put the organizational values and intents above those of the individual. However, as the machinery of government fails or derails, as is often the case in countries such as ours, there is the hidden role of the individual that we seem to not even care to explore.

I want to just mention a few aspects of the role and need for the responsible public official’s actions, when all else seem not to work for the good and efficiency of the public service.

First, we need to accept that individual responsibility in re-enforcing public services’ administrative efficiency necessarily require that it be supported as a key aspect of the overall practices in the institutional layout of public organizations.

This support will entail among others, ensuring that its not always a given that when there are tensions or conflicts between individuals and the organization, the solution will necessarily be a decisive win for the organization. In that way a few things ought to be in place to maintain a relative balance between organizational dictates and the individual’s role in protecting the very organization that may otherwise be seen to choke his/her individual prowess towards adding value to the institution.

Firstly, there will be need to have a very clear and conscious delimitation of the individual’s commitment to the organization as his/her employer, but more importantly this acknowledgement must be accompanied by an even clearer cultivation and institutionalization of the importance of individual’s identities and how these may trascends the very ethical codes and framework of the organization.

This is critical because it helps the organization to realise the role of its employees as individuals and therefore beyond what else they do as formal employees of the organization. Once, institutionalized this enables preservation of the individual’s ethical autonomy as he/she goes about performing their daily responsibilities. In short this empowers the individual official to accept that they have a responsibility to the citizen, even if it means challenging what may be considered the formal or expected behavioural pattern of all employees of the organization. Why is this important? In part what we see today in the daily operational activities of our public service, where sometimes you are not very sure who should make pronouncements to the public, you need public officials who can rescue this by literally becoming what some may call the sacrificial lambs, just so that public service values and ethical conduct are not compromised.

Secondly, public services organizations must at all time ensure that there are legal and institutional processes and provisions that are intended for the protection of the individual’s rights and conscience. This is an acknowledgement that as professionals of varied expertise and guided by their respective codes of conduct and related control instruments, they can provide valuable balancing acts to the organization and this may include challenging the organization’s established practices. The critical aspect of this requirement is to have individuals in the organization feel not only comfortable when these opportunities arise, but more importantly they must act with a full knowledge that they are protected by the organization’s legal and institutional instruments. This eliminates elements of fear to be victimised, ostracised or even punished for acts such as whistle blowing and others intended to protect the citizen as the ultimate beneficiary of all government activities.

Thirdly, the above two must be based on a well cultivated and existant ethic of awareness that broadly becomes a part of the organization’s patterned behaviour. Most dysfunctional public organizations, even when they may have had this formalised at some point, will normally deprive individuals, especially new entrants, of knowledge of these culture and its necessity in protecting the citizen. This is so because in most public service practices, the public organization becomes the defacto principal, in other words it becomes an embodiment and mirror of the means and ends of public service delivery modes, often superceeding the public interest. Unless this culture of ethic of awareness is protected, individuals may not even be aware that beyond them being part of the organization, they can equally act within accepted limits to reconcile the organizational practices with the expectations and interests of the citizens.

Lastly, above all else public services must be places where there is principled thinking, where individuals can systematically evaluate their role within the larger limits of organizational loyalty. Responsible public administrators would understand that organizational loyalty does not necessarily translate into submission at all cost, even where organizational values and legal practices are seriously in conflict with that which is perceived and accepted as the citizens’ rights and priorities. This is the paramouncy of individual acts of responsibilities necessary to be taken within public services, such as ours, where there are instances of unethical and sometimes corrupt practices. We need public servants that can protect the citizen without fearing to be dismissed, shunned for promotions or victimised in various ways. I am hoping that we can reach a stage when these are not taboos in our public services, but accepted ethical and necessary practices that add value to our overall service delivery processes. Our public service ought to embrace these not so new tendencies, they should form part of our reform measures aimed at making the public service more accountable, open, transparent and serving the nation with intergrity.

*Dan Molaodi teaches Public Administration at the University of Botswana


Read this week's paper