In search of the public ethos: Is the Unified National Competition an alternative for selecting new public servants with a vocation for public service?  

Aristotle designated ethos as constructing an image of a speaker’s character. In this sense, ethos appears as the moral character trait that the speaker must present. Another meaning that complements the first is related to a habit or custom, such as virtue and rational reflections based on values and the human experience of acting on them.  

Ethos, then, is a character, way of being, and form of relationship. It also reveals that the “way of being” depends on an action (habit) and, therefore, is not something given but generated by the action itself. Ethos “carries a plus of criticism, reflection, and freedom in relation to moral character. The ethical attitude necessarily requires justification, argumentation, substantiation” (Nunes, 2018, p. 975).

In public service, ethos refers to the professional values and standards that guide the behavior of civil servants and the way they interpret and fulfill their duties, emphasizing the importance of principles of public interest, equity, and justice (Gomide et al., 2023). The public ethos gains prominence in the context of public servants when we understand that they are the ones who make decisions that impact the lives of all of us. Gomide et al. (2023, p. 77) highlight that it is “fundamental that public bodies are made up of individuals who are fully aware of their role in defending collective well-being […] With this type of awareness, it is possible to say that civil servants are endowed with a public ethos, which places collective interest as a central element of action.”  

Marques Filho (2011) reminds us that “the quality of the provision of public services, in addition to its technical aspect, has a functional dimension related to ‘how’ the service is delivered or carried out.” For him, this issue “revives and improves the spirit of public service” in a sense of ethics of care, of understanding that others have unique needs. Therefore, the caregiver-servant must have a unique motivation based on the public ethos.  

But how are we effectively promoting, encouraging, developing, and maturing this public ethos in those who represent us, make decisions, and provide the services we use? How can we have public servants committed to the public ethos as a moral character and virtuous habit?  

In Brazil, we see the phenomenon of the competition industry and ideology (Coelho, 2015, Fontainha, et al., 2014), and even the media reproducing the common sense of Brazilian society, for which the objective of public competition is to promote the entry of employees with salaries above the market average and stable (Coelho, 2015). Thus, they disregard the public ethos and its relationship with people’s vocation to work for the public good.  

The insufficiency of a public service ethos, the distortion of meritocratic logic (Oliveira, Castro Júnior & Montalvão, 2022), and the dysfunctions of competition hinder the hiring of more prepared civil servants with greater aptitude for public functions (Coelho, 2015) and who incorporate a different meaning of work within Public Administration.  

Working for the common good can be a vocation, source of existential meaning, or aptitude that is not for everyone, even though many desire stability (Souza & Moulin, 2014). Coelho (2023) states that the number of candidates selected is exceedingly minor compared to the total number of competitive candidates. As an alternative, Oliveira, Castro Júnior, and Montalvão (2022) suggest that public competitions begin to prioritize the skills of the position, mainly behavioral, considering that, sometimes, competitions assess knowledge that is not related to the duties of the position and the organization (Gaetani & Coelho, 2023).  

The first Unified National Competition will take place in Brazil next Sunday, May 5th. This is a new selection proposal for hiring federal public servants. One objective is to improve selection methods and prioritize the qualifications necessary to carry out activities inherent to the public sector (Brazil, 2024).  

Is this an alternative to identify in candidates the vocation to work in the public sector? Will it be possible to identify the public ethos through a contest, as Gomide et al. (2023) suggested? Once, a professor, a great master, explained to me that the search for substantive actions – such as public ethos –based on substantive rationality can take place through instrumental actions… However, how can we evaluate whether our new will servant-caregivers have this look?  

I close this text with more doubts than answers, but with the (still) certainty that strategies for maturing public ethics must be considered. 

Laís Silveira Santos (public servant since age 20)


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Coelho. F. S. (2023). Entrevista. As propostas para aprimorar concursos públicos no Brasil. nexo jornal, 01-04. Recuperado de: .  

Fontainha, F. C. et al. (2014). Processos seletivos para a contratação de servidores públicos: Brasil, o país dos concursos? Rio de Janeiro, RJ: Fundação Getulio Vargas. 

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Gomide, A. A. et al. (2023). Guia referencial para concursos públicos: promoção do ethos público, realidade brasileira, inclusão, diversidade e direitos humanos. Brasília: Enap; MGI. 

Nunes, L. H. M. O controle e a punição salvarão a ética pública? Revista da CGU, v. 10, n. 17, p. 961 – 979, 2018. 

Oliveira, A. B. da S., Castro Junior, J. de L. P., & Montalvão, S. de S. (2022). O mito da meritocracia: academicismo e falhas metodológicas nos concursos públicos brasileiros. Revista De Administração Pública, 56(6), 694–720. 

Souza, S. A. D., & Moulin, M. G. B. (2014). Serviço público: significados e sentidos de um trabalho em mutação. Cadernos de Psicologia Social do Trabalho, 17(1), 49-65. 

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