A note on professional integrity
Michael Manthorpe PSM shares his reflections on professional integrity in public administration.
By Michael Manthorpe PSM
Over the last several years the topic of integrity in public administration has never been far from the headlines. At the Commonwealth level there has been a long-running debate about whether there needs to be a federal integrity commission, and if so in what form. There has been a steady stream of reports, notably from the Australian National Audit Office, that point to a lack of integrity in certain government procurement and grants programs, and much has been written about the fragility of trust in governments and their administrations.
In most state and territory jurisdictions, there have been comparable developments: premiers brought undone or subject to heavy scrutiny as a result of allegations of a lack of integrity; integrity agencies themselves have come under fire or been caught up in controversy; and findings of serious corruption in relation to senior officials have come to light in various jurisdictions. Yet across the ditch, New Zealand ranks first, along with Denmark and Finland, in the annual World Corruption Perceptions Index. Australia now ranks 18th.
Amidst all these developments, it is easy to fall prey to hand-wringing or perennial cynicism about the state of things. Yet as leaders, your people expect more than that.
So what can you do, as a contemporary public service leader, to uphold and defend notions of integrity where you work? Here are seven tips.
First, get the basics right. Ask yourself whether your branch, division or agency has effective controls in place to protect against criminal or plainly unacceptable conduct within its walls. Are there controls in place to ensure that government credit cards aren’t being misused? Or that work computers aren’t being used to access criminal or inappropriate material? Are there controls in place to ensure that there is due process and value for money in the engagement of contractors, among other things?
Although different agencies, depending on their role, require different settings, all agencies need basic systems in place to protect against wrong-doing in their ranks: security clearances, appropriate training for new staff, internal and external means of identifying and dealing with wrongdoing and corruption. It is critical to ensure that contractors, consultants and ongoing staff all have an understanding of the basics of sound administration. Your people need at least a general knowledge of public service values; FOI and privacy laws; the rights and protections for whistleblowers; the basics of duty of care, due process and fairness in administrative decision-making.
Second, ask yourself whether you demonstrate professional integrity in the way you operate at work. Your team will take a cue from your behaviour. If you demonstrate to your minister and colleagues that you operate with integrity, then your advice about making decisions that display integrity is more likely to be heard, and you are less likely to be pressed into doing shonky things by those whose integrity may be weaker.
It is one thing to have the basics right, but there are also many ‘grey areas’ that require careful attention. Would you accept an invitation to an ICT supplier’s corporate box at a major sporting event? What if the supplier could introduce you to useful new contacts? What if the supplier was competing for business in another area of your department? Do you accept a gift from a visiting foreign official? To say ‘no’ might cause offence, but if the gift is a $500 bottle of whiskey, what do you do with it? In recent years, people often refer to ‘the pub test’ as a guide against which to make judgements. I tend to prefer the ‘Senate Estimates test’. Ask yourself if you can defend your decisions in the grey areas from unexpected questions from any side of politics. Work on the basis that every one of your professional decisions might one day come to light.
Third, while you have a duty to point out integrity and other risks in the course of action that fall within your remit, seek to do so in a way that is constructive and seeks to help your minister or senior colleagues achieve their legitimate goals through ethical actions. If you are going to advise your minister against a course of action on integrity grounds, look to ‘sense check’ your approach with your boss or a senior colleague; seek your boss’s support and ideas for approaching the issue in the most useful way. It is often better to have quietly effective influential impact that achieves a good result, than be cast as a martyr or a hero, if you want your influence to be sustained.
Fourth, be there for your staff if they think something ‘doesn’t smell right’. If it doesn’t smell right, feel right in your gut – it probably isn’t! At that point pause and reflect… ask yourself, with your team, what could we do to overcome the ethical problem or dilemma we are confronting?
Fifth, keep good records. If, at the end of the day, you feel you must advise against a particular course of action based on concerns with its fundamental integrity, write it down.
Sixth, irrespective of what advice you provide about a course of action, your role requires you to implement lawful government decisions. If you think the course you are on is simply not lawful… stop and reflect again. Seek advice from your legal team or other relevant colleagues. Don’t suffer in silence. Don’t refrain from seeking legal advice for fear that it might generate an uncomfortable answer. Better to get the advice, consider it, and contemplate: what’s the right thing to do next?
Finally, remember that there is a network of integrity bodies in every jurisdiction whose reports, guidelines and very existence may be able to help you frame advice that favours a ‘high integrity’ approach. Although sometimes oversight agencies may ask inconvenient questions, they are actually there to assist in upholding the long term integrity of the system. Sometimes they may be your friend.
The newly elected federal government has emphasised the importance of institutional and systemic integrity, and several new parliamentarians have been elected having campaigned strongly on related issues. Among other things, work is underway to create a new federal integrity commission. Yet, even if there is renewed focus on the topic, integrity risks will not simply disappear, nor can they be outsourced or left to others. Every public servant has a role to play in sustaining systemic integrity.
This article was prepared for and first published, in slightly amended form, by the Jeff Whalan Learning Group (JWLG).