When public servants quit

When do you say, “Enough is enough?”  It is a question that pops in the mind of decent people who accepted appointments to public office on a firm belief that government service is the highest vocation of a citizen.  And now, face to face with the brutal realities of power, they must decide whether to quit in order to preserve their integrity and self-respect, or to stay and, with open eyes, wage a savage struggle within in order to finish what they began.

It is a question that will obviously not occur to those for whom “serving at the pleasure of the president” means literally letting the president completely decide how long they should remain in office.  Such public officials will never tender irrevocable resignations because they see themselves as good soldiers who will go wherever and whenever the president tells them to go.

I am referring rather to those who dropped whatever it was they were doing in order to answer a call to service, who willingly took a cut in pay and put their own families on hold in exchange for a chance to shape the destiny and policy of the nation.  For such officials, the implicit trust in and of the President, and the right to tell him what is wrong and what is right about the country are important bottom lines for remaining in office.  When the trust is gone and fear impedes communication, to keep one’s office is to them a disservice to the nation.

People have different thresholds, of course.  At one extreme, there are those who bristle at the slightest misunderstanding and cannot handle criticism.  They tend to think that personal worth is at stake in every disagreement over policy.  They hurt easily and quit easily.  At the other extreme are those who have no personal bottom lines because they see themselves as completely at the disposal of the president. They tend not to nurture any convictions of their own, and, if they do, they will not stand by these when challenged.  They are insensitive to public criticism, and, claiming loyalty, they never quit.

I would say however that the majority of those who accept a draft, let us say, in the Cabinet lie somewhere between these two poles.  They are ordinary men and women who see in public service an opportunity both to advance personal career as well as to contribute to the building of a better society.  They are generally not naïve about politics; they know that government service especially at the higher echelons can often be a snake pit.  They know they must steel themselves against intrigue and corruption.  They know that reform will not happen overnight, but at certain points they will likely ask themselves how much more they can take, and where their bottom lines are.

As a public official, you find yourself constantly weighing the intrinsic satisfaction of seeing cherished ideas realized into concrete programs against the dangers of a growing cynicism and an incipient tolerance for wrongdoing.  But, the longer you stay, the more difficult it gets to remember the bottom line.  You learn to rationalize, to find convenient excuses for even the most grievous acts.

You start by closing your eyes to others’ misdeeds, then you learn gradually to overlook your own.  You remain glued to the long-term goals that goaded you in the first place to accept the assignment, and this may often permit you to forgive the compromises you strike along the way.   But before you realize it, you are deeply mired in a system over which you have no control, and which ironically you are now helping to reproduce.

Your level of blindness to a personal bottom line grows in proportion to the length and intensity of your participation in the system.   You learn to compartmentalize, refusing to pass judgment or comment on decisions that do not lie directly within your narrow area of responsibility.  Soon you stop having opinions of your own, not because you lack courage, but because having them only makes it more painful to explain to yourself why you are staying.

I compare this experience to the famous frog test for tolerance.  A frog placed in a pot of hot water will struggle to get out of the water.  But not the frog that swims in gradually and slowly heated water.  The frog learns to adjust to the heat and, I suppose, to its pain.  It floats in place as it boils to death.  So many public officials needlessly compromise themselves like boiling frogs.

So, when is enough enough?  I propose a 5-point personal test.

One, when to the questions raised by your own family you can no longer give calm and reasoned answers about your work.  You get impatient and angry and you begin to accuse even the people close to you of not providing enough support and understanding to what you are doing for the country.

Two, when you begin to be defensive with the media, preferring to hire PR consultants to mediate your relations with the public.

Three, when you can no longer talk with conviction about the government of which you are a part.

Four, when you start to feel that your voice counts for nothing even in those areas for which you have accepted responsibility.

And five, when you can no longer face each day without growing more cynical and despairing about the direction that the national leadership is taking.  Then it is time to quit.

But why should you care?  Why should you feel you have to defend your continuing identification with an unpopular government?  The answer is, as F. Sionil Jose puts it in a recent column about an old friend who had faithfully served Marcos: “Because your grandchildren are asking.”


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