Lessons from Lagash: Public Service at the Start of History and Now

  • Max Everest-PhillipsEmail author


Nearly 4500 years ago, at the dawn of civilisation, the ruler of a Sumerian city-state in southern Mesopotamia, lying between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates in modern Iraq, had a radical idea. For the first time in recorded history, Urukagina of Lagash proposed that public officials should work in the interest of citizens rather than of their leaders and themselves. This ambitious concept remains with us, fulfilled in some places, but still to be achieved in others. This region that gave birth to this innovation set humanity on an endless journey into urban living and in search of effective governance. The city, citizenship, and civilisation co-evolved with public administration to make possible cultural, political, legal, economic, and social development. This remarkable achievement is a reminder of the power of public service to transform any economy and society—just as today officials are called upon to achieve the United NationsSustainable Development Goals (SDG) by 2030. This chapter suggests that the first known reform of public administration still has much to teach bureaucrats, politicians, and citizens alike. Furthermore, the fact that the first recorded reform of public administration ended in catastrophic failure is surely worth of attention, since so many other subsequent reforms have also failed. Perhaps more unexpectedly, it also argues that “what goes around, comes around”. In this context, public sector reforms of the twenty-first century are useful for interpreting the tantalisingly limited evidence from ancient cuneiform tablets about those Sumerian reforms. In so doing, it draws parallels between the uncertainty in the most ancient of civilisations and in the current context. It is equally possible but rather less usual to apply the insights from the present to understand the problems of the past. The intellectual stimulus in looking for principles guiding public administrative reform across such different times and contexts is to inform today’s pursuit of public service excellence, based on common principles and shared human values. Hence, this chapter is an attempt to examine public service reform by asking how the past and the present can illuminate each other. By tying together both ends of history of public sector reform, this chapter seeks to bind theory and practice to the needs of today, with the added benefit of providing insight into the past. Hence, this chapter puts forward seven “lessons” about public administration. These derive from public service reform in the city of Lagash and from reflections of public service reform of recent years.


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© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.United Nations Development ProgrammeSingaporeSingapore

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