The difference between a ‘public servant’ and a ‘public official’ | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Sometime in the ’80s, with an artist friend, Impy Pilapil, I went to see a homeopath for reasons I cannot now recall. He surprised me with his first question. How would I want to be remembered? I recall briefly considering the question, and almost instantly answering that I would like to be remembered as a “caring person.”


In retrospect, is that really how I would like to be remembered? It sounds so weak, so lame! A cop-out response, surely! How, indeed, do I want to be remembered?


I grapple with this question now as I add yet another candle to my already overcrowded birthday cake and mourn the passing of a man I never even knew, save as an interested bystander and observer of the passing political scene.


Thankfully, I also observed that there was no wringing of hands, no finger pointing in the wake of the widespread outpouring of public grief over the untimely demise of this exemplary public servant.


When all is said and done, what indeed is Jesse Robredo remembered for? What are all the accolades and eulogies about? Are they not about one thing, and one thing only—the servant leadership that defined and encompassed all that he did and stood for?


But what is servant leadership, and what does it take to be a servant leader? Christ defines it best in this passage from Mark 9:35: “Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, ‘If anyone wants to be the first, he must be the very last and the servant of all.’” There, in a nutshell, lies the answer.


And there, likewise, lies the dichotomy, the succinct summary of what, in general, ails our government leadership. The majority of those we elect, or are appointed into public office, are wont to reverse the equation. They put themselves first, and treat “all” others as last and servants to their own private agendas. Sadly, not without obsequious collaboration from the “served.”


Where do we, the Filipino public, get off calling our public servants “officials?”  Is not public office public service? By referring to our public servants as “officials,” we subvert our own role as “boss” and become complicit in their failure to deliver genuine public service.


Nightmare story


What a nightmare story I can tell of months of paper chase involving government red tape in the process of transferring property title to my son when my husband died! Watch how many of these self-important public servants deal with ordinary citizens as “supplicants” imploring special favors. It will tell you what pubic service is not about.


In Hong Kong where I lived and worked for over 30 years, public servants were never referred to as “officials.” They were called public servants and it was reflected in their work. As proof, even today, you need only walk into any government office to see the difference in the quality of service rendered by these “public servants.”


Might I add, though, that these public servants are also handsomely compensated and the envy of the private sector—a matter, perhaps, to consider in seeking insight into why corruption in public office is the norm here, and excellence the exception.


To get back to my original premise, and what set me off on this tangent in the first place—how do I want to be remembered? When my husband was still around, we did our bit as “servant leaders” in the Catholic charismatic community to which we belonged. Today, as a widow challenged with kneecap issues, I stay mainly in the background, whipping into shape whatever editorial material the community passes on to me for editing.


That doesn’t qualify me as a servant leader, perhaps only as an armchair servant. I am still pondering how I want to be remembered. And I haven’t yet found a totally acceptable answer.


Perhaps it is because, while there is no doubt I am definitely in the predeparture area, my flight is not yet ready to be called and there is sufficient time to define—and hopefully live out—the definition of how I wish to be remembered.


Blanche David-Gallardo is a retired journalist who worked briefly with the defunct Philippines Herald before leaving for Hong Kong with her husband Bert in the early ’60s. Together they worked for a number of English language publications in the then British crown colony, including The Asia Magazine, The Asian, Orientations, Asian Finance, Chic, The Home Journal, Eve, Dimensions and Designers Portfolio. She has lived in Manila since their return to the city on the eve of the British handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997.



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