The Role of Public Interest and Ethics in Public Service Management

Managing a public agency involves a commitment to public service, that is, a commitment to work in the benefit of the community, rather than in one own interest and for individualist reasons. Therefore, working in a public agency, and moreover, leading a public agency, is a different experience, and involves a different attitude and career goals than working in the private sector. Pursuing the public interest and having an ethical behavior are central in the management of a public agency. The present paper will try to describe how these concepts function in relation to the management of school districts.

Public service, as a concept, means work done by the people for the people, with no other goal in mind than helping others, often sacrificing one’s own well-being. More than a concept, it is a commitment to public duty which characterizes democratic societies (Staats 1988). Even though most people associate public service with government service, Elmer Staats notices, public service also characterizes the work of many profit and non-profit private organizations, whose domain of activity places them in the position of providing services for the public. Also, the author mentions individuals who assist the governments, or are dedicated to the community by providing quality services at low costs (1988, p. 602). Therefore, at the basis of public service is public interest.

Public interest is very hard to define, particularly because what it means differs from society to society and from generation to generation. According to Carol Lewis (2006), public interest is an ambiguous, complex and abstract term, and it is particularly in this vagueness that its power resides. Public interest is nevertheless a central duty of public service and must be placed at the basis of all decisions taken by public servants. Referring to the nature of public interest, Lewis (2006) explains that, “an elusive and sweeping obligation, it is a never-ending process that is made meaningful more by practice than by a product” (p.696).  Therefore, what gives meaning to public interest is its pursuit for a long period of time, rather than a specific goal, which is changing in time and from administration and administration.

Apart from public interest, public service also requires a solid understanding of ethics, and what public service ethic supposes. In an article regarding feminine perspective of ethics, senior women mangers from the public service were asked to define their understanding of ethics. The results of the study showed that, overall, “the new ways of working in the public service demand a different understanding –and thus reconceptualization – of  what we mean by ethics”(Limerick and Field, 2003, p.399).   According to Brigid Limerick and Terri Field’s findings, the interviewed women perceived ethics as an everyday practice, rather than a theory.  Moreover, senior female officials believed that ethics must be a central concern for leaders, whose behavior must be based on their own sense of integrity, rather than the changing cultural norms, or the confusing messages of the bureaucracy.

However, the respondents also noticed that having an ethical behavior does not necessarily means following one’s own values, if these values contradict those which are promoted by the organization. The leader of an organization must be aware of cultural differences in the ethics of his staff and treat this problem delicately.  The leader of a public agency is described by Mary Ann Feldheim and Gail Johnson (2004) as a ‘servant leader’, because, even though he “is providing for the needs of others while leading by showing the way”( p.8).  The authors further show that servant leaders must demonstrate “basic universal ethical principles … [which] include honesty, integrity or fairness” (ibid.).  These ethical principles all involve altruistic behavior, which must drive the actions of public servants.

Based on these works, one can conclude that public interest and ethics are two concepts that must exist at the core of public service. Public interest represents the goal of any public service representative whereas ethics is the set of principles that must characterize his efforts.  However these concepts are far more complex than it may seem, because they are dependent on many subjective and changeable elements. What remains is the universality of certain principles that are inherently human.

Public interest leads servant leaders to act in the direction which is most beneficial for the community. This direction is subject to change and may not reflect, or even contradict the public servant’s individual interest (Lewis, 2006, p.697).  The meaning of public interest, though vague, or abstract, is nevertheless, self-explanatory. Acting in the public interest means doing what is best for the community, not only for the present, but also for the future generations.

Ethics is an equally variable concept, which may be understood nevertheless as the set of principles that guide one to behave correctly. While each person has an internalized set of values, the organization where he or she works has its own ethics, according to which the employee must act. Ethics is a crucial concept in leadership, because leaders are role-models and because their actions will influence the wellbeing of the community. The ICMA code of ethics emphasizes this aspect, and explains that servant leaders should “refrain from all political activities which undermine public confidence in professional administrators (ICMA 2008, p.2). According to the code of ethics, this concept comprises of the norms of behavior that one must respect in order to be perceived as a model of virtue and correctitude for the public.

When it comes to the management of a public agency, such as a school district, public interest and ethics are central. Public interest must lead the official to use the resources for the improvement of the education experience for both the teachers and the students. Also, they must take the decisions that will prove beneficial for the community, such as implementing anti-discriminatory policies, elaborating the educational syllabus, or supplementing resources as needed. Ethics in the school district is equally important, particularly since what happens in the educational system helps the future generations to shape their own ideas of morality and ethics. Ethics in relation with school districts refers to the non-discrimination of educators and students, to the correctness during examinations, or the just distribution of physical resources. Acting in the public interest, and by following the code of ethics strictly should represent the main goal of each public service manager.


International County Management Association (2008). ICMA code of ethics with guidelines. Retrieved from:

Feldheim, M. & Johnson, G. (2004). Normative education: putting the public servant in public service. Global virtue ethics review 5. (3), pp.7-29.

Lewis, C. (2006), In pursuit of public interest. Public administration review 66 (5), pp.694-701.

Limerick, B. & Field, T. (2003). Women’s voices on developing an ethical public service. Women in  management review 18(8), pp.398-405.

Staats, E. (1988). Public service and the public interest. Public administration review, pp.601-605.