Ethical Dimensions of Militant Public Administration

Francisco Goya: Ghostly Vision (ca. 1801) // Public domain

In a recent post on the Verfassungsblog, Professor Maciej Kisilowski proposed to extend the discussion about militant democracy into a new field of “militant public administration.” It is true that the role of career public officials in resisting authoritarian state capture is not properly appreciated. As Kisilowski points out, for the far-right, the “deep state” of liberal professional bureaucracy is frequently viewed as a prime opponent of the authoritarian agenda.

There is no question that the most effective protection of individual freedoms comes from a government that is limited in scope. But we should also acknowledge the reality of extensive welfare states that are now firmly established across the democratic world. Indeed, one of the troubling features of today’s authoritarian far right is their determination to keep, in an eerie reminiscence of national socialism, a very extensive economic role of the government.

Given those realities, what is the liberal “second best”? From the classic works of Max Weber, it is well established that “apolitical bureaucracy” is, in fact, not ideologically neutral. The culture of treating career public officials as mere tools to be used by political leaders almost always generates the expansion, not limiting, of state authority. As James Buchanan famously observed, politicians almost always want to maximize their power and authority. Their demands on the career officials below them would thus almost always be aimed at an expansive view of governmental prerogatives.

Ethics of Resignation

In a liberal democracy, if we are serious about its renewal, certain areas of the public sphere and specific public service cannot be politicized. Many Polish thinkers have pointed to the army in this respect – and indeed, when the authoritarian Law and Justice (PiS) party attempted to multi-level politicize the Polish army and even harness it to support the party’s vision and interests (albeit silently and wordlessly), Polish generals said ‘NO’. Just before the October elections, two key military commanders – the Chief of the General Staff of the Polish Army, General Rajmund Andrzejczak, and the operational commander of the armed forces, Lieutenant General Tomasz Piotrowski – resigned from their positions. It was then clearly pointed out that the cup of bitterness had overflowed and that there were many examples of PiS using the army for its political purposes. And the generals chose to say they had enough of such practices.

These generals’ actions have become a perfect example of the ethics of resignation, in which the decision to resign, to leave a given office or position, is one of the decisions that an individual makes in a critical situation when individual values, are threatened and/or when the law or ethical code constituting the basis for a given profession. In such a situation, a career public official cannot avoid unethical political instructions; and believes that remaining at work under any unethical circumstances may force them to commit dishonest acts. Here, resignation means honesty, it indicates the integrity of the person, their responsibility for the entrusted office, but also responsibility towards the people for whom they hold it; it also means setting firm limits to the evil that may affect people who decide to perform public service, and, through their decisions, also the citizens themselves.

Obligations and Values

The army and the resignations of these generals are not isolated cases. Each entry into the public sphere, each dimension of work in public administration, in the civil service, is associated with specific obligations that one undertakes, not towards the politicians employing/nominating the individual for a given office, but first of all towards the institution with which it is associated, and towards the citizens who, under the social contract, have the right to require public administration representatives to protect their rights and interests. These officials are thus obligated, in some sense, to wisely guard human freedom as the value foundational to all democratic institutions.

The concept of civil service itself means responsibility towards citizens and loyalty to the democratic system and the institutions that constitute it. Without institutional stability, and without transparency of the decisions that are anchored in the legal order and the order of values, it isn’t easy to establish the existence and proper operation of responsible public service.

Civil service is also a specific horizon of ethical values that must accompany its representatives both when taking up office and throughout their term. Part of government ethics consists of process, i.e., a set of specific rights and obligations that must be respected in the broadly understood public service. Process is understood as a unique set of duties and obligations that should be undertaken reasonably and responsibly when entering public service.

It is here, in the decision-making process,  that values take the form of duties and obligations. Some of them derive directly from the social contract itself and are understood as its security – here we are talking about justice, responsibility, and respect. However, it is only subsequent obligations and duties, in addition to integrity, care, respect, keeping promises, and the four non-negotiable pillars of democracy (free and fair elections, rule of law, independence of media, freedom of university research and teaching), that constitute the basis for thinking about the ethics of public administration. A basis on which, similarly to the previously mentioned values, we should – and even must – agree on it in the public sphere.

The first value, which in a way determines the next ones, is loyalty to citizens and democratic institutions, and not to party nominations; loyalty that can overcome conflict of interests. Further: fairness, also understood as impartiality, to which should be added to the obligation to behave in a dignified manner and respect the dignity of other participants in public life. Fairness is primarily about equal treatment of all members of a community, and therefore being guided by the law and the interests of all, and not by the orders of those to whom one owes their position. Public administrators should represent everyone, and their activities should be characterized by responsibility (in the sense of accountability, i.e., accepting responsibility for honest and ethical conduct of affairs towards others) as well as transparency. Such transparency should characterize all entities in public life.

The last, but no less important value is civility, mentioned at the beginning, which allows for maintaining law and order in public matters and improves the operation of public administration at every level. Politeness, the lack of which once caused “universal contempt and repulsion,” is intended to “create positive interpersonal relationships, alleviate tensions, inspire trust, and ensure peace.” Already within these basic duties and obligations, we find the appropriate measure of the public interest. At the same time, we emphasize the personal dignity and necessary work ethic of public administration employees.

Ethos and Fear

In his article, Professor Kisilowski writes about the steadfastness of Polish judges against the repressive system of the PiS government, and about the enormous protest and professional solidarity of the visible part of the legal community, which courageously opposed the attack on the rule of law, the constitution of the Republic of Poland, and the ethos of their profession. He also asks why there was such unity among the judges, and why there was no such resistance in the ranks of public administration and the civil service. He is right, because it is impossible to run a country without the support of career officials.

It is worth considering what is not working in our civil service. Why didn’t we hear a firm ‘no’ from the service to the atrocities committed by PiS in the Polish legal system? Why were there so few decisions rooted in ethics, including the ethics of protest through resignation? Where can we look for explanations? Is it simple opportunism, the fear of losing one’s job, or connections with the party apparatus so strong that they have transferred loyalty from serving the state and citizens to servility towards politicians of the ruling camp?

It seems that what is missing here is a pattern provided by a specific code of ethics, which can be transgressed by neither politicians nor career officials; a code limited above and below. We no longer think of institutions as free from political pressure, where orders that are inconsistent with the law, the public interest, or the ethos of public service are simply not performed. And I’m not talking about some new type of harmful “conscience clause”, but about the need to educate public administration and the civil service so that it plays its proper role.

Timothy Snyder wrote: “Remember your professional ethics. (…) It is difficult to destroy the state of law without lawyers or to organize show trials without judges” … It is equally difficult to destroy the state without a pliant public administration. Only with its help can a democratic state be rebuilt properly and efficiently. Therefore, Donald Tusk is right when, in his statement of June 7, he talks about the need to rid the state apparatus of people who “do not have the determination to serve the homeland well”, and “clearing the administration at the highest levels of people who do not guarantee sensible action, and sometimes quite the opposite.”

If we are thinking about renewing liberal democracy, we must rebuild the ethos of civil service, educating public administration employees so that they can work for the good of the state and be able to guard freedom wisely. Because – recalling the words of the Prime Minister on February 17, on Civil Service Day – only a “concern for the increase in the importance and professionalism of the Polish administration will have a positive impact on increasing the development potential of the entire country.”

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Magdalena M. Baran