What does it mean to be a public servant in the era of Trump?


Before moving to the US to pursue a Master’s in public policy, I was a public servant in New Zealand. As a public servant, I viewed my role as serving the public to improve the lives of New Zealanders, with the added component of serving the government of the day.

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Public servants are required to be neutral and, despite having a point of view, I understood my responsibility and fulfilled my duties according to the principles of neutrality. But is there a limit to neutrality? Bishop Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”.

Is there ever a time when public servants should shirk their responsibility of neutrality to serve the greater good? How does one decide what constitutes a greater good?

A few days after the election the dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, The University of Texas at Austin (my alma mater), sent an email to students reassuring them of their decision to pursue an education in public policy saying, “Your decision to invest in a public policy education could not be more important and timely.” But for a lot of people, this seems to be the worst time to be in public policy in the US.

Since Trump’s inauguration, his administration has been plagued with leaks, there have been articles written about the role of the deep state, alternate social media accounts have popped up purporting to be employees and observers from within. The administration seems to be in chaos with many roles unfilled and many departments without adequate direction.

It started on Inauguration Day when the National Park Service tweeted photos comparing inauguration crowds of Obama and Trump. We later learned that Trump demanded they find other photos of his inauguration. A few days later the Badlands National Park’s Twitter account posted tweets that seemed to directly challenge the president’s position on climate change. Those tweets were later deleted, prompting alternate twitter accounts from various government departments.

These accounts have not been independently verified and their lack of validity brings into question the information that they are trying to communicate to the public. It appears that despite these new mediums, the best way to get information to the public that is reliable is still via traditional media because reporters are trained to verify and protect sources.

My dean said in that email that “this is the time for thoughtful reflection on how we are going to come together to contribute to the national discourse” but it appears we are not going to be allowed that privilege if this administration has any say.

The president’s advisor – Steve Bannon – a controversial figure in the White House said recently that his goal is to “deconstruct the administrative state”. Bannon, a nationalist, who believes that state institutions are a hindrance to governance is in a way a threat to the civil service. If he is directing presidential policymaking, what hope do public servants have to contribute meaningfully to the national discourse?

How seriously should public servants take this threat? Does this extend to public servants in the international community whose governments are working with Trump’s? The question public servants undoubtedly need to ask themselves is: Will I be contributing to the public discourse or will ideological decisions driven by sheer force overtake policymaking?

If it is the latter at what point do public servants have duty to shed their commitment to neutrality?