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The public interest issue:

Acting in the public interest is a concept that is fundamental to a representative democratic system of government to good public administration. However, this commonly used concept is, in practical, particularly complex and presents two major obstacles to government and their public official acting in the public interest.

  1. Firstly, while it is one of the most used terms in the lexicon of public administration, it is arguably the least defined and least understood- few public officials would have any clear idea of what that term actually means and what its ramifications are in practice.
  2. Secondly, identifying or determining the appropriate public interest in any particular case is often no easy task- as Layndon B Johnson once said: 'Doing what right isn't it the problem, it's knowing what's right'.

The concept - Acting in the public interest

The overarching obligation of public officials: Public officials have an overarching obligation to act in the public interest, they must perform their official functions and duties and exercise and discriminatory power, in ways that promote the public interest that is applicable to their official functions.

The primary purpose of non-elected public officials is to serve. Serving the public interest is one of the four dimensions of this primary purpose the other three-dimension being:

  1. To serve the parliament and the government of the day (not applicable to all public officials).
  2. To serve their employing agency where applicable.
  3. To sir the public as customers or clients.

Associated with each of these four dimensions of service are various conduct a standard with which people officials in democratic countries are commonly expected to comply, each with its two objectives.

Experience has shown that there will be times where a public official will need to balance conflicting or incompatible conduct a standard or objectives- where the public official has to make a decision that will serve one objective but not other or one more than another. While there is some flexibility inherent in the various conduct standard with which public officials are commonly expected to comply, the fundamental principle must be that public officials must be resolved any such conflicts are incompatibilities in the base that do not bridge their obligation to act in the public interest.

This issue was addressed by the royal commission into the commercial activities of the government sector in Western Australia (the WA inc. royal commission). In its report the WA inc. royal commission said that one of the two fundamental principles and assumptions upon which representative and responsibilities government is based is that:-

The Institute of Government and the officials and agencies of government exist for the public to serve the interest of the public.

The royal commission noted that this principle (the trust principal) expresses the condition upon which power is given to the institution of government, and to officials elected and appointed alike, later in its report, it noted that the government is consistently obligated to act in the public interest. This mirror a statement made in a 1987 judgment of the NSW supreme court, court of appeal that government act or at all events are constantly required to act in the public interest and a statement made in a 1981 judgment of the high court of Australia that executive government act or is supposed to at in the public interest.

This does not mean of course that what is in the interest of executive government should automatically be considered to be in the public interest.

The two components of the public interest:

Acting in the public interest has two separate components:-

  1. Objectives and outcomes- that the objectives and outcomes of the decision-making process are in the public interest.
  2. Process and procedure:- that the process adopted and procedure followed by decision-makers in exercising their discriminatory power is in the public interest.

The objective and outcome components are the aspects of the public interest most referred to in the literature. The process and procedure component appears to be less discussed but is just important. This component would include:

  1. Complying with applicable law.
  2. Carrying out functions fairly and impartially with integrity and professionalism.
  3. Complying with the principle of procedural fairness / natural justice.
  4. Acting reasonably.
  5. Ensuring proper accountability and transparency.
  6. Exposing corrupt conduct or service maladministration.
  7. Avoiding or properly managing situations where their private interests conflict or might reasonably be received to conflict with the impartial fulfillment of their official duties.
  8. Acting a politically in the performance of their official function.

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