Need for Higher Standards

Despite the ballyhoo, public opinion usually judges public service on the whole as no worse than other segments of society. Of course, there are differences, depending on the field or function (Pew Center for the People and the Press, 1998; Figure 1.3). Sparse data indicate that people in public service are usually seen as about average, meaning no worse but also no better than others. The problem is that average is just not good enough.

In reality, average is not the public’s, the profession’s, or the public employee’s expectation. Falling short of a higher expectation arouses a sense of ineptitude, even betrayal. Whatever the actual or perceived incidence of either corruption or fairness, the simple fact is that public service is expected to operate on a higher ethical plane than other, more garden-variety activities. Decades ago, an eminent practitioner-academic testified at Senate hearings:

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It is significant, too, that the American people generally seek and expect from the government of the United States higher standards than they expect elsewhere. And on the whole they do receive from elected and appointed officials generally a return of extraordinary devotion, even though the weighing of value questions is so complicated and difficult as to make the judgments reached highly controversial.

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