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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751


WESSELS, J S. Thinking public servants for a better society. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2015, vol.55, n.4, pp.556-569. ISSN 2224-7912.

This article sets out to determine how thinking in its rich variety of nuances can enable a public servant to make a significant contribution to a better society. This article reports on a non-empirical, conceptual study, which comprised the identification, reading and analysis of seminal texts on several interrelated concepts such as "thinking", "street-level bureaucrat", "discretion", "meaningful contribution" and a "better society". The analysis focused on the defining attributes and meanings of each concept. Four main nuances of the concept "thinking" have been identified, namely critical thinking, determining thinking, adjudicative thinking and reflective thinking. These nuances have been mapped on a two-dimensional scale according to a combination of the knowledge (explicit versus tacit) and orientation (decision-making versus considered) in order to understand thinking within the context of public servants, and more specifically the "street-level bureaucrat". The concept "street-level bureaucrat" has been used to refer to those officials who are in some or other way directly in contact with citizens in the rendering of a public service or execution of a public function. The essential nature of this contact has been shown to be public servants' ability and willingness to make meaningful discretionary decisions that align the complex macro policy and regulatory framework with the local and sometimes individual needs and circumstances. This article shows that a meaningful contribution is a decision of which the legacy can be found in the future of a better society. Various meanings of the notion "better society" have been considered, for example "good governance" (an efficient and accountable public service, a reliable judiciary, and an acceptable balance between the interests of the public and the government) and "the common good". For the purpose of this article, a better society is regarded as a sustainable state, which exists for the constant improvement of the best interest of many. Public officials seem to play a pivotal role in this process. The ability of adjudicative and reflective thinking in combination with critical and determining thinking has been shown to be necessary for street-level public officials to make sound and caring discretionary decisions. Through this quality of decision-making, street-level public officials have the scope and opportunity to make a sustainable contribution to the improvement of the quality of life of the vast majority of society. A crucial question, however, is whether public servants do have the will to make those discretionary decisions that can change the future for many.

Keywords : street-level bureaucrat; public servant; thinking; discretion; decision-making thoughts; reflecting thoughts; determining thoughts; tacit thinking; explicit thinking; enabling concept; better society.

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