Public Interest, Political Philosophy and the Study of Public Administration

Public interest is a term with a long history in traditional political philosophy.  The idea of transforming the interests of many people into some notion of a common good is of course for many people the central task of the whole political process. Thomas Aquinas maintained the  “common good” (bonum commune) to be the end of government and law, while Aristotle took the idea of the “common interest” (to koinei sympheron)  as the foundation for his distinction between “right” constitutions, in the common interest, and “wrong” constitutions that were merely in the interests of the rulers.  The purpose of government is therefore, within many traditional accounts, to give expression to the public interest.  As John Locke puts it, “the peace, safety, and the public good of the people” are the ends of political society, and “the well being of the people shall be the supreme law”.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau took the idea of the “common good” (le bien commun) to be the object of the general will and purpose of government.

However, this begs the question of how one determines what is in the public interest and what is merely, in James Madison’s words the will of “interested factions”.  This is potentially dangerous territory.   Eamon De Valera, the founder of the Irish state,  famously is said to have stated that he only had to look into his own heart to know what the Irish people were thinking.  It is not difficult to conjure up a whole series of more sinister figures from history who similarly may have claimed to be the font and origin of what the people want.  However, the  fundamental task of a political process (at least in anything approaching a democratic condition) is to find a way of translating all the individual interests in society into some common, public or general good that both encapsulates and transcends each individual expression of interest.  Within some versions of democracy public interest is simply the result of the  clash of all private interests.  It may be enough here to simply count the preferences of people expressed in a fair election and take the majority position (hedged around by various protections for the minority) as establishing the public interest.  Other “thicker” forms of democracy require more by way of resolving, measuring and building preferences within process of deliberation and debate.  

The fact remains however that no political system can generate a comprehensive series of answers as to what is within the public interest in all the issues that face government.  It will remain up to officials – as well as lawyers and judges – to make decisions about where the public interest lies in any matter.  The classic British Civil Service, within the Northcote-Trevelyan tradition, would see itself as operating within the political framework of government in pursuit of the public interest.   

Certainly the idea of public interest is a central concept throughout  the Seven Principles of Public Life,  produced by Lord Nolan as guidance for all those involved in public service and it remains a key element for the everyday working of Government for example in the Code of Conduct for Board Members of Public Bodies. The concept of public interest remains central in other areas of civil service business  too, most obviously in relation to disclosing information.  In addition to important matters such as whistle-blowing, it can been seen too in relation to more mundane information matters such as, for example,  what  information  may be disclosed relating to the appointments process or whether Government funded research may be published more widely. Public interest is also used a working concept to judge  whether or not any new policy innovation under the so-called Green Book procedure for evaluating and appraising whether any new policy innovation should be developed.

This sort of reality of government practice has provided a starting point for many accounts of public interest within a framework of the study of Public Administration.  The way in which the term is used and the value attached to it have been the subject of many trends and fashions within this academic discipline in the UK and USA. Questions have been asked about what is the proper boundary for describing the “public” in this context.  Should it be the community, region, or nation, or is there a plausible idea of a European or even Global public whose interest can be divined?  [see EU law; the ECHR]  Even within a viewpoint circumscribed by some vague notion of “society” – however that it is defined -, public interest has been seen variously as the commonly held values of society, society’s “best interests”,, a moral standard for public action, a simple balance of interests, an illusory idea, and other things besides.  This leads on to debate about whether and how any version of public interest can be calculated and how it might be advanced through government policy.  As the study of Public Administration blends into Political Philosophy there are arguments that an interest must be seen as “justified claim” rather than simply a want or desire, and that the “public”  as it is constituted for these purposes must satisfy certain democratic criteria.  This leads on to wider questions about the nature and possibilities of political action in a common  interest and the moral, ethical and normative nature of such action.

It is at this point, and because of the difficulties in ever coming up with any agreed, usable conception that some public administration scholars have recently turned to law (and to the Constitution in the US context) in order to gain some purchase on this concept.  Within (particularly North American) approaches to the discipline of Public Administration there can be seen a recent trend towards an approach that systematically studies public administration by looking at court interpretations, as well as statutes, international  treaties and significant constitutional actors.  Within this approach combining understandings of public interest with constitutional law, and wider ethical considerations as viewed through contemporary economic and legal analyses, is thought to reinvigorate the discipline and revive the viability of studying the rather troubled  idea of public interest.

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