Public work is work that results in solutions and services that are available and accessible to all, are usually paid for by some form of collective investment and effort and which are accountable and ethical in ways that everyone can easily see and understand. They are common, collective, legible and provide benefits that can be enjoyed by anyone and everyone and captured exclusively by no one and whose costs are distributed and not necessarily related to contribution.
Understanding and wanting to privilege, in some circumstances, the value and impact of public work doesn’t necessarily come armed with a naïve disposition to see “public” as faultless or without blemish.
Public work is not worth much if it isn’t rigorous and disciplined, can’t explain and, in most cases, measure in some open and plausible way the impact and value of the investment of talent, money and effort on which it depends and fails to hold itself accountable to very high standards of quality, expertise and effort.
I’m not arguing either that anything to do with the public sector and the public realm, which is part of public work but not the only or always the leading part, is necessarily good and always done well. Or that there aren’t people and organisations in the public sector that don’t always do very good work or who can’t be as lazy, venal and slapdash as anyone else in any other sector.
My point is that public work, and the work of the public sector, is important and becoming more, not less necessary to our collective and individual ability to survive and thrive in a very different and rapidly changing world.
The coronavirus emergency has stripped politics and government of a lot of their veneer of confidence and bravery.
This is David Runciman reminding us that has happened before:
The long run is something else. Achen and Bartels quote the words of one historian of the Black Death, which remains to this point the worst plague in human history: ‘The plague also discredited the leaders of society, its governors, priests and intellectuals, and the laws and theories supported by them. These elites were obviously failing in their prime social function, the defence of the common welfare, in the name of which they enjoyed their privileges
It’s as if the virus has ripped away a lot of the bravado of politicians whose recent and contemporary arrogance and childish game playing have been revealed as the thin and unsustaining gruel. If not exactly with no clothes, they can sometimes look like emperors standing in the pubic square wearing very little, hesitant and bereft of the sometimes swagger and toy solider bravery which has been replaced by hesitation and uncertainty.
I wonder if that will last and whether, when the emergency is over – whatever that means – we’ll see a sustained shift to a noticeably “kinder, gentler” and perhaps humbler and less combative politics? Perhaps even one that reconceives the conduct of politics as part decisive leadership and the ability to take good decisions and part expert orchestration of wisdom, expertise and energy from a wide and eclectic mix of people and interests, characterized by empathy, humility and rigour.
Implausible? Politics is combat, at least in some measure. And sometimes for good reason and necessarily so.
But it seems that, in recent years, it’s too often been too much about combat and has become a game played largely by people whose personalities relish that kind of game. Right now, though, they’ve all gone a bit quiet and many (not all, to be fair) look foolish and well out of their depth. I wonder what the longer-term implications of the difficult lesson in political humility the virus has administered will be.