PAPER PRESENTED BY EMEKA D. ELEH PPNIVS, FRICS, FNIM, MCIArb AT THE 27th J.W. EKPENYONG MEMORIAL LECTURE AT EKO HOTEL & SUITES, LAGOS 26th MARCH, 2021
PROFESSIONALS AND THE PUBLIC GOOD
Professionalism is derived from the term Profession/Professional. A professional connotes a person with a distinct competence for a specified function or discipline. Such a person would have been trained or has acquired the necessary training in that discipline after appropriate tutelage to become a professional in that field. A professional exists within the context of a profession; a distinct discipline or career path with its own training, qualification, membership requirements and standards. It is in the bid to establish such standards that Professional Bodies and Regulatory Boards exist to ensure that persons within its fold have requisite training/qualification and also abide by its rules and ethical standards. “In ethical terms, to be a professional is to be dedicated to a distinctive set of ideals and standards of conduct. It is to lead a certain kind of life defined by special virtues and norms of character and it is to enter into a sub community with a characteristic moral ethos and outlook”. A professional in any field is a highly regarded person and is deemed to have a certain level of competence expected of a person in that profession.
WHO IS A PROFESSIONAL?
Deriving from the earlier definition above, the following captures a summary of the key characteristics of a Professional:
- He is trained and qualified in a particular field and is deemed competent.
- He belongs to a Professional Body or Association with its own set of rules and standards.
- He abides by the rules and standards of his Professional body
- He is honest and diligent and is deemed to understand his fiduciary responsibility and duty of care to his client and the public at large
- He attends trainings, workshops, seminars and Mandatory Compulsory Professional Development Programmes (MCPDs) in a lifelong learning process to continually update himself
- He generally comports and conducts himself properly.
Professionals carry immense technical and advisory power but such power also comes with a high degree of responsibility.
Professional ethical standards should embody the moral bond linking the professional, his clients and the public at large. Whilst the work of every professional can affect the interest of his client, it may also play an important role in enhancing public interest and the common good. Effectively, therefore, every professional will have to consider not just the duty he or she owes the client but also act in the public interest and protect the common good. Understandably most professionals tend to care more for the private duty of care they owe their client. This duty is easy to grasp and comprehend. After all, it is a duty that will ultimately be paid for by the client providing the vital business and income to the professional. The duty to protect public interest and common good is by contrast rather abstract in nature and more difficult to define which is why professionals do not pay adequate attention to it. The society as a whole has grown dependent on professionals,trusting in their ethical conduct which they believe is protected by the relevant professional bodies and Regulatory Boards. This level of trust places a moral responsibility on the professional to discharge his duties to the highest ethical standards whilst protecting both the private interest of his client and the public interest.
PUBLIC INTEREST AND PUBLIC GOOD:
The question may be raised as to why the professional should be expected to consider the public interest and the common good in the discharge of duties to his private client, who in any case is paying his fees.
An answer to the above is that any service to a private client that undermines public interest by way of wrong advice to the private client to serve his immediate needs only tends to distort the system and affects the overall public interest in that area adversely, albeit indirectly. This in the end engenders cynicism about the professional involved and endangers public trust and confidence in the professions as a whole.
One direct way professionals serve the public interest is by providing appropriate intellectual and technical expertise to the Government or its officials, especially in the area of policy making. Another way is through making their knowledge and expertise available to the general public through publications, interviews and public advisories.
Some professionals indeed believe that this is the extent of duty they owe the public in order not to venture into the area of governance and politics which is the exclusive preserve of politicians and other public/civil servants. This is basically a narrow view point based on points already raised above.
Some writers have tried to distinguish between public interest and public good (common good) but by and large, the two are basically similar and can be used interchangeably and that is the view held in this presentation. Both generally refer to public or communal benefits available to every member of the society. Such benefits are usually available to every body without exception and are mostly free. They may be the direct or indirect result of our actions either as individuals or professionals and may be made available through various government efforts, policies and interventions arising from government dependence on professionals for advice and guidance.
PROFESSIONALS IN PUBLIC SERVICE AND THE PUBLIC GOOD:
As earlier stated, both individuals, companies and the society at large have become dependent on professionals of all cadres in day-to-day life. This paper has in the preceding paragraphs examined the role of professionals in private practice who offer advisory services to the private and public sectors in the promotion of ideals and activities aimed at enhancing the public good. We now want to examine another critical and very important mass of professionals who may directly or indirectly affect our daily lives even more than the earlier group. These are the professionals that work in the public sector or who serve the Government at all levels in the executive, legislature or judicial branches. It is essential to state that the basic parameters for attainment of professional status in any discipline is basically the same.
Irrespective of which sector the person wants to work in, it must also be stressed using Nigeria as an example that professionals are not in short supply in either the private or public sector. The question can then be asked; why is the Public Sector generally more inefficient and ineffective? Why do we have major issues with both the policy decisions and execution of such policies? Why do we have high incidence of corruption in this sector that has placed us in the dishonorable sections of the Transparency International Report on corruption?Yet we have professionals working at all levels of Government.
The list of concerns is endless.If professionals in private practice are expected to have a duty to protect not just the interest of their client that pay their fees but also have an innate duty to protect the public interest and the public good, much more is certainly expected from professionals in the public sector because their primary duty is protecting the public interest and the public good. Is this really the case? Certainly not. We have professionals of all cadre serving in Government at all levels as elected officials and appointees. We also have an even larger number serving as civil servants/technocrats in ministries, departments and agencies of the Government. Yet we are where we are and it is clear that those whose primary responsibility is to serve in a manner that protects the common good have failed the system; from Accountants to Lawyers, Engineers, Surveyors, Journalists etc.
Most times, the potential adverse effects of some Government policies and actions are so apparent from the word go that the usual question by those outside is “Are they not seeing what we are seeing?”. There is no doubt that the country will not develop to its full potential if professionals in the public sector do not rise up and play their role. More often than not the civil servants will blame the problem on the Government (of which they are part of). But then, virtually all elected and appointed officials of the same government have one professional certification or the other and have received or are receiving all manner of professional awards. Indeed, in recent times, we have seen an upsurge in the number of professional bodies in Nigeria under the aegis of the Association of Professional Bodies of Nigeria (APBN). Traditionally, monolithic professional associations have been broken up either by choice or dissent (more the later) to create other professional associations that could have remained a subgroup of the main body. Ordinarily, one would think that this would enhance specialization and add more value to the system but that has not been the case. At a time when we have enough manpower to professionalize leadership at all levels, the effect of the professional is not been felt as is expected especially in the public sector. There exists an apparent conflict between entrepreneurship, professionalism, career progression and self-survival which obviously affects the output of the professional. A professional, no matter where he is serving is to be held to high ethical standards and some will argue, to indeed higher standards than non-professionals. It is only when the society can rely on the ethical integrity of the professional that the society can be a better place. Indeed, the professions themselves, generated this high level of expectation and demands in the public mind (more for self-serving purposes) and they have to be held to the high standards they preach, albeit on paper only.
PROFESSIONAL ASSOCIATIONS AND REGULATORY BOARDS:
The question will also be asked; what is the role of Professional Associations and Regulatory Boards in ensuring that their members operate or serve to high ethical standards and protect the common good. What role do they play in defence of the common good even where their members are involved:
- In ensuring that their members live up to the high moral, ethical and professional standards expected of them and sanctioning them where they fail to do so
- Advising the government on policy issues that pertain to their area of expertise
- Holding the government accountable where they take obvious wrong policy decisions at variance with the constitution or established rules. This could be in form of championing further interactions with the government, public statements and interviews and in the final analysis pursue the legal option to compel the government to take the right course in defence of the common good. More often than not, Professional Associations shy away from the last option for fear of antagonizing the government but in doing so it is eventually the public good and the interest of the society as a whole that will suffer.
- Lead research into new and better ways of doing things in their area of specialization. Despite the financial implication, professional associations must lead the challenge of research and deliberations that will lead to new ways of doing things and upgrade local services to the level of international best practices.There remains a huge gap in service delivery and duty of care to the public between our local professional bodies and similar bodies in the developed world.
- Make strident effort to build trust between the public and themselves by ensuring the ethical integrity of their members in the provision of their services and protection of the common good.
- Create an awareness for the continuous training and retraining of its members to ensure that they keep informed of vital developments and knowledge in this fast-changing world.
- Provide guidance, counseling and mentoring for the younger generation through appropriate interactions that will enable then make the right career choices
PROFESSIONAL ASSOCIATIONS AND MEMBERS ONLY INTEREST:
More often than not, professional associations speak out but only when their narrow self-interest is affected. While this is certainly in order whenever necessary, they must strive to work for the higher calling of serving the public interest and enhancing the common good without the lure of fee or reward. It is such activities that will build the vital trust with the public and the government and give professionalism its moral weight.Where they fail to do this, they risk degenerating into mere special interest groups driven by struggle for “privilege, power and position”. Their failure to rise up to the occasion will also reinforce the tendency to view professional ethics (as expounded by the professions) as mere “smoke screens masking economic self-interest and pursuit of social power and relevance”.
DISCIPLINARY POWERS OF THE REGULATORY BOARDS:
The Regulatory Boards set up by the Government to regulate professional associations also have a huge role to play. In most instances, every professional not only have to be licensed by the respective Board to practice but indeed owes a continuing obligation to the Board to practice in accordance with set rules failing which his or her license can be withdrawn. The Boards thus have immense disciplinary power to call their licensee to order. Unfortunately, this power is very rarely used which has led to the low level of trust in the professions. Where it is used at all, it is to sanction professionals in private practice.Yet the professional infractions that indeed cause more damage to the society and adversely impact the common good are perpetrated by professionals in government and the civil service.
How often has a Board or Professional Association sanctioned a serving officer of the government or a civil servant for actions taken against the public interest. A plethora of public cases exists against these cadre of professionals and some indeed get conclusively resolved by the courts but the Boards and Association remain silent. This is not only harmful to the professions as it fuels negative public cynicism but it also adversely impacts the public interest which the Boards and Professional Associations are expected to defend.
NIGERIAN INSTITUTION OF ESTATE SURVEYORS AND VALUERS (NIESV) AND PUBLIC GOOD
It is appropriate considering the thrust of this event, to pay some attention to the role of the Nigerian Institution of Estate Surveyors and Valuers in the pursuit of public interest and public good.
Like all other professionals, our members operate in both the public and private sectors and the real estate sector is particularly of vital importance to the society and the Government. It thus behooves us to practice our calling to the highest ethical standards and always consider not just our immediate client’s interest but the effect our advice or actions may have on the overall public interest. This is more so because of the poor perception of our members and our services in the public eye which negatively affects the image of the profession.
One way to address this image problem is to ensure that our members operate to high ethical standards, bearing in mind that good service delivery especially the model that protects public interest and public good is the best way to build trust with the people. We must bear in mind that any time we give wrong opinion either for rent passing or sale prices or when we give a wrong opinion of value of a property during a valuation process in order to satisfy a client or for pecuniary gain or anytime, we generally act unethically, it only distorts the system, damages trust in the profession and ultimately does not enhance public good. Such advice may serve the narrow personal interest of the client (and the Surveyor involved) but will certainly not be in the public interest as the Surveyor would have only foisted a wrong opinion on the public domain.
At the corporate level, the Institution must continue to lead advocacy on vital issues of interest like affordable housing, land reform, property taxation etc. There is also a need to champion the enthronement of new and better ways of rendering our services. Of particular note is the need for the establishment of an active multiple listing service and the creation of a standardized data bank of real estate rates and yields which will assist us in valuation advisory work. The above two issues are certainly not exhaustive but when addressed will not only make our work easier but will also add value to our service delivery as well as assure the public that we are “listening” and changing with the times.
There is yet so much to be done to make a difference. Yes, we need to protect our members interest, but we should also always strive to protect the public interest and the public good.
In the end, every professional must live his calling and play his role in and out of the workplace bearing in mind that his actions and inaction affect the integrity, hopes and aspirations of the professions as a whole. Every professional must work not just to defend the interest of his client or employer but must always maintain the vital dual focus of not just performing the task set before him but also rising to the higher calling of protecting the public interest and enhancing the common good in the discharge of his duties, whether in the private or public sector. It is only by so doing that the society as whole can feel and benefit from the impact of our training and expertise. We must always bear in mind that in our peculiar environment, most people may not afford our services and it is only when we rise to the higher calling of operating in a way that directly or indirectly enhances the common good that they can benefit. This will not only reinforce trust in the professions but will also make the society a better place.
- Edger A. Burns (2019), Theorizing Professions,
A Sociological introduction; Palgrave Macmillan
- Bruse Jennings, Daniel Callahan and Susan M Wolf (1987), The Professions; Public interest and Common Good
The Hastings Center Report, February 1987, Vol. 17, No.1
- Melanie Walker (2016); How to turn Professionals into people who serve the Public Good; The Conversation Africa
- Business Day NG 2014; Professionals and Nation Building