What Does "Public Interest" Mean for Public Administration Majors?

When you look at the code of ethics of the ASPA (American Society for Public Administration), the first thing that it says is to always advance the public interest, but what exactly does that mean? Why is it important? More importantly, how can you as an MPA student act in the public interest? The following sections will help to answer these questions and more.

What Does Public Interest Mean?

Every day, Americans put faith in the government that it is doing what is best for them or in their best interest. This starts on the micro level, with a town mayor holding a clean-up day to make citizens take pride in their town, to the federal government raising taxes on cigarettes. The people who make government decisions are supposed to act in the best interest of the public rather than for themselves, their political parties, or private corporations.

Who Defends the Public Interest?

Public administrators at all levels of government are ethically bound to protect the public interest, but it extends deeper than that. The code of ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) states that “journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.” This means that journalists should be more focused on presenting the truth to the public instead of defending their own interests.

On top of these two fields, special public interest groups work to ensure the rights of citizens for specific causes. Forbes created a guide of public interest groups working to ensure ethical government decisions in the digital world. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) fights for Internet privacy and free speech, while the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) advocates for Internet freedom and copyright protection. All of these groups follow the government and make sure that decisions are made to protect Internet users.

Are There Public Interest Gray Areas?

In short, yes, there are. Whistleblower Edward Snowden is a perfect example of conflicts in the public interest. The National Security Agency (NSA) was set up to protect national security, and Snowden leaked documents proving that the organization was tracking American emails and phone calls. On one hand, the NSA surveillance was protecting public interest, but informing Americans about the tracking was also acting in the public interest.

The public itself is still split on whether Snowden’s actions were ethical. Pew Research Center found that 57% of 18- to 29-year olds believe that Snowden served instead of harmed public interest; however, only 42% believe that he shouldn’t be criminally tried for his actions.

What Should Students Do?

How can students protect public interest? The answer lies in the rest of the ASPA’s code of ethics. Demonstrate personal integrity, stay fully informed of different opinions, and fight to strengthen social equality. When the public administrator does his or her best work ethically, advancing the public interest is soon to follow.

When civil servants fail to act in the best interest of the public, citizens are hurt and rights are denied. The small acts of one can hurt many. This is why defending the public interest was in the United States Constitution, and why it continues to be practiced today.