"Celebrating the value and virtue of public service."

By David Edwards

published 23 June 2021 updated 5 July 2021
written by:

United Nations Public Service Day was established by the General Assembly in 2002. It “celebrates the value and virtue of public service to the community; highlights the contribution of public service in the development process; recognizes the work of public servants and encourages young people to pursue careers in the public sector.”

Public service, equity and democracy

In recent decades, the market has taken centre stage and public services have often been neglected and starved of resources. That is part of the explanation of growing equity gaps. There has been a massive re-distribution of wealth and power, from the many to the few.

There is a myriad of reasons for growing injustices as well as for dangers to democracy, but among them is the fact that the balance between public governance and services accountable to elected leaders have been constrained on the one hand while markets and their actors, on the other hand, have been “liberated” by de-regulation and liberalisation.

Public services in democracies are not interchangeable with private services. They are driven by the public good, not private gain. They serve citizens, not consumers. Their success is judged by social progress and expanding equality and opportunity for the many, not by financial return to a relative handful.

This fundamental difference is highlighted by privatisation and public-private partnerships (PPPs). Public services run by private, for profit service companies will no longer be driven by the public good, but by private gain. PPPs are often a confusing mix of public mandates and private entrepreneurship.

A good example of this mix and its dangers to democracy is the introduction of information and communications technology in education. It rapidly expanded with distance learning during the pandemic. Who is making education policy decisions concerning its insertion in education: public authorities or edtech companies or both? Where does that leave teacher professionals and their trade unions? Where does that leave parents and citizens?

Public service values vs. Market profiteering

It is not enough, however, to protect public services from domination by private parties through privatisations and PPPs, even if public funding were to be boosted. It is not that simple. To fully contribute to society and democracy, public services must embody public service values. That means that their planning, strategies, and methods need to be in harmony with their purposes and values.

Public service values are closer to the values of the family and of the community than they are to the cost-benefit analysis frameworks of the world of business. Education is a compelling example. Students are human beings full of curiosity and life. Qualified, professional teachers have learned how to stimulate the joy of learning and facilitate the development of young people. The imposition of management techniques and systems of measurement from the private sector, undermines learners and teachers and sabotages the mission of education.

The COVID-19 pandemic has awakened a public yearning for community. It has also forced values to be examined. Health, education, and other public services and the people who make those services possible are recognised as important and central to human existence. There has also been growing dissatisfaction with governance. The crises and their aftermath provide a window of opportunity to shift public discussion and priorities.

Education: the fundamental public service

If public services are to make their full contribution to building a better future, they badly need more public investment. There is no public service more linked to the future than education. It has suffered under-investment for decades. Education not only requires immediate funding. It requires long-term, sustained investment.

Bringing new talent to the teaching profession requires quality and continuous training, protection of rights, good salaries and conditions, and the possibility to be creative, autonomous with professional support. It means being at the table and not at the margins when policy is developed. Retention of experienced teachers involves maintaining an environment of well-being that changes the balance of working life from debilitating stress to job satisfaction.

The pandemic and its effects have required great public expenditure at national levels in a world with little international solidarity. That means that finance ministers may be tempted to return to austerity habits. Education and other public services as well as economic stimulation and equity measures that are vitally needed should not be subject to that old, failed approach. Following that path will guarantee failure on all fronts.

Success is possible, but it requires a major mobilisation of a scarce commodity – political will. There is enough money in the world to be responsible and address fundamental global problems. It just needs to be moved from where it is being hoarded to where it is desperately needed. For that, we need a public-private partnership that has been proven to work – taxing corporations and individuals who have benefited the most from globalisation to finance social progress and the fight to save the planet.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.