Master of Public Administration Online

The Importance of Public Service Values

“Public service” is a general phrase; once we begin to understand the principles upon which public service is founded, we can better understand what it means to be a public servant.

What are the values that underlie the mission of public service? Recently, two researchers conducted a survey of 52 high-ranking figures in public administration in the United States in order to determine what values they held to be most important to their profession.


The #1 value that public servants espoused was honesty. Someone who seeks to advance the public interest must always approach the truth head-on, even if it isn’t pleasant or comfortable. An aspiring public servant should always be honest, with themselves as well as others.


The same survey defined “integrity,” a close second to honesty, as acting “in accordance with relevant moral values and norms.” It’s easy to forget sometimes that “values and norms” are meant to be spurs to action, not just maxims. The most important thing to understand about public service values is that they aren’t passive intellectual concepts. Instead, they are, in the words of one expert in public service (Dwight Waldo), “criteria for action.” These values are the guideposts for public servants in how they can best contribute to society.

Lawfulness and Benevolence

These two terms were separate items in the survey, but we can learn something from the fact that they were tied for third place. It would seem like these two things have nothing to do with each other: one is about following prescribed rules, the other about caring for other people. But to a public servant, these are just two sides of the same coin. Public service is about putting laws into practice in a way that benefits citizens, rather than inhibiting them or their rights. A public servant should always keep in mind that the law is there to help, not hurt, the public.


We can also learn something from what came up at the bottom of the survey as well: “self-interest” and “profitability.” These values may be useful, even essential, in other places, but not in public service, which above all means putting people ahead of profits and others ahead of oneself. The profits derived from public service aren’t always monetary, but are rewarding nonetheless. The public servant seeks to make the world a better place for everyone, keeping these important values in mind.