This paper discusses two inherent conflicts that might occur between self-interest and public interest, namely definitional challenges and market-oriented mechanisms. Accountability, choice, best practice, and value, as well as the reinforcement of shared values and elaboration of norms of justice and fairness, need to be integrated into the new public sector management to deal with these conflicts.
Although available literature views public interest as a central consideration in public sector management (Wolpert & Gimpel, 1998), there still exist conflicts between self-interest and public interest, some of which threaten to make public interest disappear irrespective of the fact that that self-interest has a minimal influence on public attitudes toward many issues (Hess & Adams, 2003). This paper reviews two of these conflicts, before discussing how tenants of the new public management assist governments to deal with them.
The Inherent Conflicts
While public interest focuses on choosing any course of action through rational, self-disinterested, and benevolent manner for the good of a larger public, self-interest is oriented towards fulfilling personal advantages rather than the public good (Andersen & Zhang, 2011)
Elcock (2006) underscores the inherent conflict by highlighting the thin line separating self-interest and public interest in public sector management. Arguing on purely Puritan and Benthamite utilitarian perspectives, the author suggests that public interest is simply the sum of individuals’ wealth, happiness, and avoidance of pain; hence the government’s role must be limited to optimizing individuals’ freedom or their self-interest. To demonstrate this point, Elcock (2006) argues that “bureaucrats and ministers, like everyone else, are rational maximizers who will inevitably act in their own interest, not in any wider public interest” (p. 103). As an example, I have participated in demonstrations aimed at forcing the government to close terrorist detention camps. The government responded by demonstrating accountability of the camps even as it stressed their importance for the public interest.
Another scenario highlighting the inherent conflict between self-interest and public interest is grounded on the perception that actors in the new public management are rooting for a market-like delivery of public services, hence perceived to be reinforcing self-interest since citizens (customers) will only be involved in issues affecting them rather than taking a public interest perspective (Denhardt & Denhardt, 2011). Although the new market-oriented mechanisms have resulted in enhanced competition and choice, hence improving the capacity to provide better and cheaper public services (Hess & Adams, 2003), a number of scholars opine that market mechanisms provide room for citizens and policymakers to progress a self-interested perspective, hence the conflict (Andersen & Zhang, 2011; Denhardt & Denhardt, 2011). An example is filling for tax returns, where I felt that our tax dollars are used for the wrong reasons. This was resolved by looking at the value of the monies contributed as tax from a broader public-oriented perspective.
In dealing with these inherent conflicts, tenants of the new public management are including factors such as accountability, choice, best practice and value into public sector management, all of which can be subjected to some type of quantification (Denhardt & Denhardt, 2011; Hess & Adams, 2003). Additionally, public administrators are being increasingly encouraged to create shared interests and responsibilities to progress the notion of public interest, and also to ensure that any solutions to the conflicts in public sector management are consistent with the norms of justice and fairness (Denhardt & Denhardt, 2011). The primary objective of these solutions, according to these authors, is to assist citizens’ articulate shared values and generate a collective sense of the public interest.
From the discussion, it is evident that inherent conflicts might occur between self-interest and public interest, particularly in the context of new public sector management. Definitional challenges between the two constructs and the introduction of market-oriented mechanisms in the public service have been highlighted as possible sources of conflict. Accountability, choice, best practice, and value, as well as the reinforcement of shared values and elaboration of norms of justice and fairness, need to be integrated into the new public sector management to deal with these forms of conflict.
Andersen, L.B., & Zhang, Y. (2011). Beyond self-interest? A comparative study of public service motivation among masters of public administration students in China, Denmark, Taiwan and the United States. Web.
Denhardt, J.V., & Denhardt, R.B. (2011). The new public service: Serving, not steering (3rd ed.). New York, NY: M.E. Sharpe Inc.
Elcock, H. (2006). The public interest and public administration. Politics, 26(2), 101-109.
Hess, Michael and Adams, D. (2003). Public sector reform and the public interest in Australia. Asian Journal of Political Science, 11(1), 22-39.
Wolpert, R.M., & Gimpel, J.G. (1998). Self-interest, symbolic politics, and public attitude toward gun control. Political Behavior, 20(3), 241-262.