How public officials often fail their duty
Monday, January 13, 2014 4:00 PM
CARSON CITY - A Nevada regent once stated earnestly: "Our duty is to be cheerleaders for higher education!"
Later, a consultant said that when regents vote on something, we must all support the outcome and not publicly dissent afterward. When I said that would be shirking our duty of accountability to the public, she claimed we have a fiduciary obligation to our institutions to advocate adopted positions.
Recently, a regent said that our main duty is to help and support college leaders.
These people obviously don't know the fundamental duty of public officials. Their statements reflect perversions of that duty that are endemic not just with some Nevada regents, but throughout public education and government.
The board of regents was created by Nevada's constitution to govern public higher education as the fiduciary agent of the people of Nevada, especially the taxpayers who provide its support. So, governing it in the broad public interest is our duty.
The public interest encompasses many concerns that inherently compete with education, so our duty is to seek the balance points that satisfy that interest, not to merely advocate for education, which we revere. Moreover, as illustrated by the third comment, advocating for any such cause usually devolves to advocating for its provider and client groups - and such groups are inherently special interests that, given human nature, will be as predatory upon the public interest as they are allowed to be.
They will, of course, invoke eloquent words and sentiments to suggest their desires are completely in the public interest but it isn't so; thus, having public officials be cheerleaders or handmaidens of special interests trivializes and perverts their duty. Boosterism and advocacy are not governance; substituting them for it is a failure to do one's fiduciary duty to the public interest.
The notion our fiduciary duty is owed to institutions that are only instruments of the public interest and such alleged duty to institutions trumps our duty of accountability to the public is completely wrong. If we were regents for a private college, our duty might be to the institution that creates a board to govern it. However, the consultant, a former state college president, should know the difference between the public interest and a mere instrument created to further it - an institution that may even be discarded when the public interest may be better served by other means.
Unfortunately, experience has taught me that the views of those three people are all too common. Legislators, governors, commissioners, school trustees, etc., often become allies and enablers of special interests - bureaucrats, public-employee groups, suppliers, regulated entities, and clients and other "stakeholder" groups of public agencies, and of course lobbyists for all those special interests.
Partly, the problem is human nature in politically allocating resources, which is what government does. Leaders have to work daily with public employees and suppliers and rely on them for service; regulated firms and persons, stakeholders, and client groups that get services from public agencies are also always immediately present; all those groups are vocal and politically active.
However, non-political people and taxpayers are not present and involved every minute, as are special interests. So, the public interest can seem an abstract, not compelling principle.
Further, some folks erroneously equate the public sector with the public interest. The public sector has grown so large relative to our society and economy that its size and reach are a huge burden upon the primary public interests of economic growth, liberty and fairness. If public officials allow it - and indeed they do - public bureaucrats (being human too) will be at least as predatory upon the public interest as private parties.
Non-political taxpayers are systematically under-represented in public affairs. Many of them are focused on productive activity, not the zero- or negative-sum political allocations of resources. Thus, their activities generally serve the public interest. So, in governing in the broad public interest, they are folks about whom we should most be concerned, not the special interests who are always before us.
Ron Knecht of Carson City is an economist, law school graduate and Nevada higher education regent.