Toward a new moral contract: Reclaiming trust in public service
The rewards of this special calling, like those of other professions, come at a price. The price is submitting to very high standards of professional conduct; accepting public scrutiny and accountability; learning to hold a public trust and to put public interests ahead of self; respecting the authority of law and of democratic will; and entering into a community that values these as the foundations of good government. The values of public service are both its price and its reward.
Immediately after these words, the task force recognized, however, that a community based on such high ideals “is bound to have its moments of disappointment and discouragement.” In the federal public service, we have certainly been living through another one of those in the last few years, to say the least. Since about 2000, the federal public service has found itself under a cloud of suspicion. Various public events have tarnished the reputation of the public service for competence and integrity. During this time, much of the news coming out of Ottawa seemed to be about boondoggles, wrongdoing, and whistle-blowing, as if that was all that occurred in the federal government.
For federal public servants, as you can easily imagine, this kind of an atmosphere has been discouraging. Not just because the assumptions and implications of this discourse were usually false, but also because these events reinforced an “existential crisis” that has been going on in the public service for over twenty-five years, the very crisis that led to the creation of the Tait task force in the first place. This crisis had seemed to be waning in recent years, but these events have served to revive it, at least for a time.
By an “existential” crisis, I mean a crisis that has to do with the very existence and role of a public service: a crisis of identity compounded by a crisis of legitimacy and, for a time, a fiscal crisis as well. The public service is not alone in experiencing such existential crises: other professions have experienced them in recent decades (as Howard Gardner, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and William Damon have pointed out, in their book, Good Work). But the public service’s own existential crisis has been long and profound, because it was related to deep social and cultural trends, and to what I call two “long cycles” of legitimacy since the Second World War.
In the first cycle, from the 1940s to the 1960s, governments could do no wrong, and, as far as public opinion was concerned, everything that could be in the public sector should be in the public sector. In the second long cycle, from the 1970s to the 1990s, that perspective was completely reversed: public opinion now believed the private sector could do no wrong, and everything that could be in the private sector should be in the private sector. Since somewhere in the late 1990s the pendulum has, I believe, begun to swing again, and we are gradually moving back to a more balanced and realistic view of both sectors, and therefore into a third cycle. (It remains to be seen how long a cycle it will be.) But the recent events to which I referred have helped to keep us acting and thinking as if we were still in the second, and in the existential crisis that went with it.