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A11-1655 Overby v. Halla Nursery, Inc. (Dep’t of Employment & Econ. Dev.)

Time for an Academy of Public Service

Our politics may not be fully broken, but they are surely in disrepair.

When a former candidate for national office thinks that calling for the impeachment of a sitting president is good politics and a sitting president thinks that telling his partisan opponents to “sue me” is also good politics, we have arrived at an unhappy moment in our nation’s history.

The social capital that sustains political visions and engagements has been allowed to depreciate as we have been waging a cultural war amongst ourselves since the late 1960s.

What can we do?

I am more and more reminded of the old rhetorical choice between lighting candles or cursing the enveloping darkness.

To me these two suggested options are not genuine alternatives. Our only step must be to light the candles.

Constructive proposals are coming forth: a bipartisan commission has 15 recommendations; FairVote Minnesota seeks to change the way we select candidates; gerrymandering is under attack; campaign finance cornucopias are under challenge.

Paul Volcker has told me about his new Volcker Alliance to restore confidence in public administration as a public service. He is seeking new ideas and tools to strengthen policy execution at all levels of government and is committed to taking actions that contribute to a high degree of confidence in both the decision-making processes of government and in its administrative management.

But recent Pew Research Center polls indicate that ideological polarization among the people is growing. Right/Left sectarianism has encouraged each extreme to be more and more fearful of the other, while, in response, the middle is giving up hope that common sense will ever reassert its claims to our loyalties.

Money politics puts self above service. Ideological politics ends up in the same place for different reasons.

Ideologies are quasi-religious in their origins and their social impacts. They are divisive and breed self-righteousness. They call forth a zero-sum politics of using power to validate only one point of view, as theocracies do. Ideologues seek to serve themselves and rid society of “heretics.” Ideologies don’t fit very well with constitutional democracy.

To end the distemper of our times, we need something powerful to counter both money politics and other self-seeking fundamentalisms.

We need to bring our politics back to seeking the public common weal — the old Roman republican idea of the res publica — the thing that belongs equally to all of us.

Sustaining our res publica does not mean always ending up with a muddled middle or a vacuous compromise that gets us nowhere. Serving our res publica demands decisions with which not all will agree, but which a sustaining majority will accept as being faithful to a large vision of service and benefit. Think of Lincoln.

We therefore need to change the core job description of those who seek office, those who are appointed to office, and those who are elected to office.

Their principal function must be to serve the res publica — not themselves, nor their friends, nor their financial sponsors, nor in every way their party.

As moral individuals, those who hold any public trust work for the people first and foremost.

Personal interest, friends and sponsors, parties and factions are to be subordinated to higher standards of aspiration and conduct.

A public office must be a public trust.

This is a standard of vocation, of a calling of servant leadership, of stewardship and good trusteeship of public power.

The ideal is in fact ancient.

Samuel lectured the Israelites that their proposed kings would abuse the powers of their kingships. Samuel’s God told him that in setting up kingships, the Israelites were actually turning away from God and his ways of justice.

The prophet Ezekiel passed on God’s anger at the “shepherds of Israel” who fed themselves and not their flocks. God thus thundered that he would take his flock away from the faithless and negligent shepherds.

Matthew 20:28 reports that Jesus saying that “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.”

Confucius advised that justice came when those in office attended properly to their duties and did not exploit their positions, when “lords did lord, ministers did minister, fathers did father, and sons did son.”

Mencius affirmed that rulers who abused their offices could be overthrown.

The Quran teaches that God created us to be his stewards and agents in creation to do justice therein.

John Locke concluded his treatise on government saying “Who shall be judge whether the prince or legislative act contrary to their trust? … I reply: The people shall be judge; for who shall be judge whether the trustee or deputy acts well and according to the trust reposed in him, but he who deputes him, and must, by having deputed him, have still the power to discard him when he fails in his trust?”

Federalist No. 57 (Hamilton or Madison author) said that “the aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.”

That same essay notes that persons elected to a term in office should be elected to subsequent terms only if “faithful discharge of their trust shall have established their title to renewal of it.”

Our constitutional law has codified this moral injunction: Public office is not personal property; it is a trust to be held for the benefit of the people.

Public office is not a business for personal profit; it is a profession of service.

What is to be “professed” by those who hold political office is fidelity to their offices. The oath taken that qualifies one to serve as president of the United States speaks of “faithful execution” of the “office” of president.

Public office, being a trust, comes with professional standards above and beyond the demands of getting elected or keeping one’s administrative tenure.

This demands that those who hold office must hold themselves to the standards of a profession.

A definition provided by Wikipedia says that “a profession is a vocation founded upon specialized educational training, the purpose of which is to supply objective counsel and service to others, for a direct and definite compensation, wholly apart from expectation of other business gain.”

Also according to Wikipedia, a profession arises when any trade or occupation transforms itself through “the development of formal qualifications based upon education, apprenticeship, and examinations, the emergence of regulatory bodies with powers to admit and discipline members, and some degree of monopoly rights.”

The professional competency associated with the professional status of holding public office is excellence in fiduciary responsibility.

To date there is no education, apprenticeship, or examination in how to be a good fiduciary in positions of public service. There are no systems or practices of mentorship. There are no peer reviews to encourage the keeping of high standards of personal stewardship amidst the temptation that come with holding power and the head-turning distractions brought on by media celebrity.

Nor is there any organization to deliver such education, provide such apprenticeships, or certify qualification in fiduciary stewardship as applied to politics and government.

My organization, the Caux Round Table, with encouragement from Paul Volcker, is taking a step to initiate such professional training for those in public office. This week we are providing the first certificate training session in fiduciary duties for Public Service. We will offer additional sessions this fall and next year.

We hope that those who take the training and others who have held office will join together in forming an Academy of Public Service to provide mentoring, advanced fellowships, continuing professional education, and peer support to other members of the Academy.

The initiative so far has received the endorsements of former Minnesota Governor and U.S. Congressman Al Quie; former U.S. Sena. Dave Durenberger; former U.S. Congressman Jim Ramstad; former Minnesota Lt. Gov. Joanne Benson; Secretary of State Mark Ritchie; State Sen. John Marty; State Sen. Roger Reinert; and former Duluth School Board member Mike Maxim.

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