What is serving pubic interest?

The brief essay below is by Professor Geoff Gallop part of an exciting and important new collection from Australia21 "Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia? Essays by notable Australians”.

Geoff is currently Director of the Graduate School of Government at the University of Sydney. He was a member of the Western Australian Legislative Assembly from 1986 to 2006 and Premier of Western Australia from 2001 to 2006. He was Deputy Chair of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Reform Council (2007–11), Chair of the Australia Awards Board (2011–13) and Member of the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission (2008–09).


All of us who are or have been involved in government know about the public interest. It is what we pledge to serve whether we work in local, state or national government. It is both a value and a duty. It is about process and outcome. It applies to both elected and non-elected officials and according to the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) it is ‘the fundamental mission of government and public institutions’. However, do we know enough about what it means for our day-to-day work? Have we really embraced it as a governing principle or do we simply use it as a form of rhetorical justification in the day-to-day battles of politics?

Let’s start with the question of democracy and the accountability relationship between government and the people. This is a good starting point as it is not possible to talk about ‘the public interest’ without talking about ‘the people’.

On this account it is an election that is the key and through it the majority can have their views about the public interest translated into policy. In other words,
if elections are fair and free the public interest is what the majority wants.

However, this begs a number of questions about system and content: Which voting system are we to use? Will we have one or two legislative chambers? Will we adopt a presidential or parliamentary model of government? What about the rights and interests of minorities? What about the value we place on that which we inherit from the past? What about the interests of the future generations and, indeed, of the natural environment we all share? How do we weigh up economic alongside social and environmental considerations?

Taking the public interest seriously requires decision-makers to be concerned with both processes (how we make decisions) and content (what decisions we make). It is an aspiration to find that mix of policy that best represents the interests of the whole community and the evidence tells us that the following elements are well designed to help: engaging with the people not just through representative and but also through more direct forms of democracy such as citizens’ assemblies and citizens’ juries,Ÿcreating a culture of human rights and liberties to combat the “tyranny of the majority”, Ÿincorporating appropriate checks and balances into law making and government, using the most up-to-date results of research to inform decision-making, adopting strategic planning as a method of governing, Ÿencouraging devolution and decentralization of decision-making, Ÿincorporating the sustainability principle (meeting the needs of current and future generations through an integration of environmental protection, social advancement and economic prosperity) into all aspects of government policy-making, andŸpromoting a shared and inclusive understanding of history.

All too often, however, those with the responsibility to decide find themselves in a world of individual and sectional interests hungry for attention, colleagues not all of whom share the faith and media pressures for super-quick responses. Economic and political power isn’t distributed equally throughout our community and preserving our heritage and protecting our future can be particularly difficult. What this illustrates, however, is that the public interest does mean something. It is a powerful call to arms in a less than perfect world. Have we properly involved the public? Are we respecting the rights and interests of all? Have the solutions we propose been properly researched and adequately consulted? Are we protecting or undermining the historical and environmental foundations of human existence? How sustainable are the policies and programs we propose? Are we too focused on economic growth and not enough on wellbeing?

Being an elected or non-elected official in government poses particular challenges. Have I done all that I can to ensure that these questions are being asked as part of the normal operations of government? This is a personal and not just a political question. Try as we might but there is no escape from personal responsibility. This takes us into the territory of “conflicts of interests”. We all have interests and connections be they individual, family or community.
In the case of politics it is very much the defence and development of these interests and connections that leads to the formation of factions and parties and is often the motivation for a person to stand for election. Even in bureaucracies there are interests and connections in respect of occupation and organization. Public servants are naturally defensive of the roles they play and the agencies within which they work. They are the custodians of continuity and often the creators of departmental silos. Quite often corners are cut or sails trimmed to satisfy their political masters.

Consequently many jurisdictions have now developed institutions and codes of conduct to assist those in decision-making positions. These codes are not just guides for those involved, but reference points for agencies set up to investigate and report upon claims of improper and corrupt behaviour. As sad as it is, maintaining the public interest is no longer just about self-awareness, it is also about external supervision.

The public interest, then, is indispensable as benchmark and guide and it
provides just the right intellectual and political discipline needed in a world being destabilised by climate change, jihadism and economic crisis. It requires us to think about means as well as ends. It broadens our understanding of what interests matter and takes us into the world of good government responsive to evidence and sceptical in the face of ideology.