Professionals and the public good
Professionals carry immense technical and advisory power but such power also comes with a high degree of responsibility. Professional ethical standards should embody the moral bond linking the professional, his clients and the public at large.
Whilst the work of every professional can affect the interest of his client, it also plays an important role in enhancing public interest and the common good.
Effectively, therefore, every professional will have to consider not just the fiduciary duty he owes the client but also act in the public interest and protect the common good.
Understandably, most professionals tend to care more for the private duty of care they owe their client. This duty is easy to grasp and comprehend.
Afterall, it is a duty that will ultimately be paid for by the client providing the vital business and income to the professional. The duty to protect public interest and common good is by contrast rather abstract in nature and more difficult to define which is why professionals do not pay adequate attention to it.
The society as a whole has grown dependent on professionals, trusting in their ethical conduct. This level of trust places a moral responsibility on the professional to discharge his duties to the highest ethical standards whilst protecting both the private interest of his client and the public interest.
Any service to a client that undermines public interest by way of wrong advice to the client to serve his immediate needs only tends to distort the system and affects the overall public interest in that area adversely, albeit indirectly.
This in the end engenders cynicism about the professional involved and endangers public trust and confidence in the professions as a whole. It must be stressed using Nigeria as an example that professionals are not in short supply in either the private or public sector.
The question can then be asked; why is the Public Sector generally more inefficient and ineffective? Why do we have major issues with both the policy decisions and execution of such policies? Why do we have high incidence of corruption in this sector that has placed us in the dishonourable sections of the Transparency International Report on corruption?
Yet we have professionals working at all levels of government.
The list of concerns is endless. If professionals in private practice are expected to have a duty to protect not just the interest of their client that pay their fees but also have an innate duty to protect the public interest and the public good, much more is certainly expected from professionals in the public sector because their primary duty is protecting the public interest and the public good.
We have professionals of all cadres serving in Government at all levels as elected officials, appointees and civil servants. Yet we are where we are and it is clear that those whose primary responsibility is to serve in a manner that protects the common good have failed the system; from accountants to lawyers, engineers, surveyors, journalists etc.
Most times, the potential adverse effects of some government policies and actions are so apparent from the word go that the usual question by those outside is “Are they not seeing what we are seeing?” There is no doubt that the country will not develop to its full potential if professionals in the public sector do not rise up and play their role. More often than not the civil servants will blame the problem on the Government (of which they are part of).
But then, virtually all elected and appointed officials of the same government have one professional certification or the other and have received or are receiving all manner of professional awards. At a time when we have enough manpower to professionalize leadership at all levels, the effect of the professional is not being felt as is expected especially in the public sector.
There exists an apparent conflict between entrepreneurship, professionalism, career progression and self-survival, which obviously affects the output of the professional. A professional, no matter where he is serving is to be held to high ethical standards and some will argue, to indeed higher standards than non-professionals.
It is only when the citizenry can rely on the ethical integrity of the professional that the society can be a better place. Indeed, the professions themselves, generated this high level of expectation and demands in the public mind (more for self-serving purposes) and they have to be held to the high standards they preach, albeit on paper only.
Professional associations do speak out but mainly when their narrow self-interest is affected. While this is certainly in order whenever necessary, they must strive to work for the higher calling of serving the public interest and enhancing the common good without the lure of fee or reward. It is such activities that will build the vital trust with the public and the government and give professionalism its moral weight. Where they fail to do this, they risk degenerating into mere special interest groups driven by struggle for “privilege, power and position.”
Their failure to rise up to the occasion will also reinforce the tendency to view professional ethics (as espounded by the professions) as mere smoke screens masking economic self-interest and pursuit of social power and relevance.
The Regulatory Boards set up by the Government to regulate professional associations also have a huge role to play. In most instances, every professional not only have to be licensed by the respective Board to practice but indeed owes a continuing obligation to the Board to practice in accordance with set rules failing which his licence can be withdrawn. The Boards thus have immense disciplinary power to call their licencees to order.
Unfortunately, this power is very rarely used which has led to the low level of trust in the professions. Where it is used at all, it is to sanction professionals in private practice. Yet professionals in government perpetrate the professional infractions that indeed cause more damage to the society and also more adversely impact the common good.
How often has a Board or professional association sanctioned a serving officer of the government or a civil servant for actions taken against the public interest? A plethora of public cases exists against this cadre of professionals and the courts indeed conclusively resolve some but the Boards and associations remain silent. This is not only harmful to the professions as it fuels negative public cynicism but it also adversely impacts the public interest which the Boards and Professional Associations are expected to defend.
In the end, every professional must live his calling and play his role in and out of the workplace bearing in mind that his actions and inactions affect the integrity, hopes and aspirations of the professions as a whole. Every professional must work not just to defend the interest of his client or employer but must always maintain the vital dual focus of not just performing the task set before him but also rising to the higher calling of protecting the public interest and enhancing the common good in the discharge of his duties, whether in the private or public sector. It is only by so doing that the society as a whole can feel and benefit from the impact of his training and expertise. This will not only reinforce trust in the professions but will also make the society a better place.
Eleh is a past president, Nigerian Institution of Estate Surveyors and Valuers.
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