ABCs of Public Service

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

| Photo by Community of Democracies via Flickr/Commons CC BY 2.0

The problem with the systems of democracy, especially the types adopted by advanced Western nations, is that the vast gap between the ideal and the real prevents its principles from being understood by fledgling nations. It may have been more than 2,000 years ago when Greek and Roman philosophers created democracy in their minds. That is how the reason can be so up there and takes millennia to land on the ground.

Today, Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, or Twitter can stimulate these. They can accommodate dreams and aspirations way ahead of their translation to the material. They conjure mental images that can be mostly imaginary. But they are not real; they only play with our minds and our lives like actors and actresses we idolize but can never marry – or even meet in the flesh.

What is real is the struggle of daily life; bad if you are not rich and worse if you are poor – both sectors in the Philippines comprise 80% of the population. To allow ourselves a little rest from the challenges of daily living: waking up too early, rushing out of the home to the traffic, devoting most of our waking hours to traveling, working for pay we know is too small for our families. We are in another world where our spirits forget hardship; we frolic in our emotions and minds for a while. We fantasize we engage K-Pop, we follow entertainment stars in their social media accounts.

Politicians know that. Intuitively, instinctively, and experientially, most know that. And those who do not, or those who cannot buy those who can. Experts in marketing, psychology, human behavior sciences, research, propaganda, mindset, and especially in twisting truth out of shape are there to make money out of the ambitions and greed of many. Even the few talents doing it a favor are there to translate the dreams and ideals of the idealistic and the naïve – mostly first-time wannabees.

Technology has made the sick art of Hitler’s Goebbels a mainstream activity in politics. Winning is everything. Or, for the not so totally in the dark side yet, winning is the most important. The voters are in an arena fighting all the lions and the wolves because of technology, expertise, and resources. Voters are gravely challenged to discern between the real and the fake. Politics have become make-believe because politicians know that the non-rich easily fall for the world of the pretend. Democracy here is not at all what the ancient philosophers imagined.

Poor Filipino voters. As social media users, they cannot easily distinguish truth from lies in the virtual world. They cannot even ascertain if their virtual friends are real people or bots on the many social media platforms. Even more, they cannot determine if what these contacts are saying is true or not. Each one must have the diligence to research a little – and who does that today? Even senior citizens have been tracked as the most guilty in passing on fake news – unwittingly, but guilty nonetheless.

And poor Filipino voters are loaded with the responsibility of choosing the best candidates among the thousands running. How wise will their choices be with their inherent disability to discern real or fake, truth or lie?

“R.A. 6713 sets the fundamental criteria of public officials and employees – for all of them, whether elected or appointed. R.A. 6713 makes it mandatory that they serve in the manner set by law.”

The Constitution has something that should help in a big way. Among the most vital laws is one of the most important yet one of the most unknown. I refer to the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards as embodied in Republic Act 6713. I can also understand why politicians, even as candidates, would not like to center their candidacies on this law.

R.A. 6713 sets the fundamental criteria of public officials and employees – for all of them, whether elected or appointed. R.A. 6713 makes it mandatory that they serve in the manner set by law. At the same time, election laws make it easy for citizens to be candidates.

Before they make platforms or promises, voters must be aware that the Constitution and the law protect them by making obligatory the very norms of conduct in public service – from the President to the lowest hire in the bureaucracy. R.A. 6713 bears the eight (8) norms of conduct – a commitment to the public interest, professionalism, justness and sincerity, political neutrality, responsiveness to the public, nationalism, and patriotism, commitment to democracy, and simple living.

Because the law opens the way for the most ordinary Filipino citizen to serve the public, a more fundamental law demands that they perform well. Voters must always ask if the candidates appear capable, primarily through their tract records, of complying with the code of conduct and ethical standards demanded of them once in public office.

“Public officials and employees are the ones who apply for their positions knowing there are obligations, especially in their conduct. If they follow the law, the burden of proof is not on us; it is on them.”

Yet, the very law created to protect Filipino citizens from bad public servants is the least known and applied. Among the most known of officials and bureaucrats, can we say they are committed to the public interest (or their own) by their public behavior? Are they professional, just, sincere, politically neutral, responsive to the public (no red tape), nationalist and patriots, committed to democracy, and simple living?

Public officials and employees are the ones who apply for their positions knowing there are obligations, especially in their conduct. If they follow the law, the burden of proof is not on us; it is on them. The law should be firm and immediate in its application and terminate those who cannot comply with any requirements. If this law is applied first and foremost, other laws will be much easier to implement.

Integrity. Objectivity. Professional competence. Patriotism. Simplicity.

Are these standards meant to define public service, the character of our officials and bureaucrats? Do we look at those in government as our models for conduct and ethical behavior? I will speak for the majority in answering no, no way.

Because a fundamental law is not implemented, maybe even scorned.

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