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How the APS can build trust by adopting institutional integrity

10 April 2019

News and media


Person making building blocks with TRUST

This article is based on one of the papers, Being a trusted and respected partner: the APS Integrity Framework, authored by Nikolas Kirby and Simone Webbe.

According to 2018 OECD research, the perception of government integrity is the strongest determinant of trust in government. In Australia, there is a continued pattern of decline in Australians’ trust in federal governments. If the 2030 vision of the APS Review Panel is of a strong APS united in service, a global leader, trusted and respected by the public and its partners, then the APS needs a comprehensive strategy for building integrity.

The APS must strike a new balance between being responsive and apolitical. It must reassert merit and tenure-based appointments and clarify its role in delivering policy advice.

APS culture and practices need to support APS values, with a clear and highly visible legislative framework that includes both an independent broad-based anti-corruption commission and a second, highly visible and robust separate institution, substantially building upon the current APSC, to lead the APS in proactive ‘pro-integrity’ activities.

This needs to be combined with a shift in thinking towards a model of ‘institutional integrity’.

Institutional integrity

Broadly speaking, the idea of public sector integrity has moved through three phases. First, integrity was understood as merely compliance by individual public officers with a set of common, minimum standard, rules (compliance integrity). Secondly, during the mid-1990s integrity began to be understood as also promoting a set of positive shared values. for the discretion within the bounds of those rules (values integrity). Public sector integrity now needs to move into a third phase: institutional integrity.

Institutional integrity is a collective virtue of the institution itself, achieved by the coordinated stewardship of its public officers. These officers do not merely comply with rules and promote shared values, but take leadership and responsibility for ensuring that the combined effect of those actions is an institution that the public can see is overall consistent, coherent, legitimate, praiseworthy, virtuous and trustworthy. In other words, not merely the parts, but the whole can be described as ‘having integrity.’

The core of such a framework is the promotion of four institutional qualities: purpose, legitimacy, fulfilling commitments, and robustness.

Legislative change and recognition of stewardship

The current legislative and institutional framework of the APS — and indeed the public sector as a whole — lacks visibility and coherence, overall leadership for proactive integrity measures, capacity when reacting to integrity risks, and integrated system-wide research and assessment. A single, comprehensive Public Integrity Act is needed to address these concerns with broad coverage across the Commonwealth public sector beyond the APS to address current accountability gaps.

The current APS Values and Code of Conduct duties reflect a framework already well-positioned to strive for institutional integrity. However, the code should make clear that the value of ‘stewardship’ should apply to all public servants, not just their leaders. It then becomes a more distributed and institutional value which draws attention to the responsibility that all public officials have for the integrity of their institutions.

Tenure and merit-based appointments

Ministers are entitled to expect APS secretaries to be good performers who are responsive to government needs. Merit-based appointments are crucial for institutional integrity, and also for frank and honest advice. We recommend that merit-based recruitment and selection of APS leaders include the following measures to discern quality and apolitical candidature selection:

A prescribed waiting period after any employment in ministerial office (federal or state) to improve public perceptions and confidence in apolitical candidates.
The appropriate involvement of external stakeholders (such as business and community) in the selection process, without conflict of interest compromise. This would offer both an independent perspective and a check on how ‘in touch’ the candidate is beyond the walls of the APS.
Recruitment and selection processes should explicitly involve discussions and considerations on integrity and the APS Values.
A greater role for the APS Commissioner with more transparency and accountability for the selection decision, with an explanation to parliament if the proposed appointment is not made with the recommendation of the APS Commissioner.
Improved security of tenure for APS leaders to a standard that is not subject to political interference.

Managing post-employment potential conflicts

While there are institutional benefits in career interchange and diversity, how the conflicts of interest are managed will be key for public integrity. We recommend that agency heads consult with the APS Commissioner for an independent, expert check to decide how to manage potential post-employment conflicts of interest.

Cooling off periods of one to five years apply in other countries, and France, Canada, Italy and Spain have dedicated integrity bodies for post-employment consideration.

Pro-integrity commission

Current political debate in Australia on integrity has been around the proposed establishment of a Commonwealth Integrity Commission with the responsibility to ‘detect, deter and investigate suspected corruption and to work with agencies to build their resilience to corruption and their capability to deal with corrupt misconduct’.

However, a pro-integrity framework needs more than a dedicated anti-corruption agency with corruption-prevention responsibilities. It needs a highly visible, pro-integrity body charged with leading the public service in ‘how to be best always’ to build up and sustain public integrity strength and resilience from its very foundations.

A well-executed pro-integrity mission will promote integrity for its own sake and deliver better performance outcomes. Integrity should be formalised as the primary responsibility of a statutorily independent pro-integrity body as the guardian of APS Values. Given the existing institutional framework, we recommend this new body be built upon the existing foundations of the Australian Public Service Commission, with enlarged powers, status and resources. Similar integrity bodies operate in the Netherlands, the European Commission, Sweden and Belgium.

Integrity for the 21st Century

All government institutions in the 21st century operate in the context of a disrupted, volatile and uncertain media landscape, growing popular distrust of institutions in general, partisan and sometimes populist politics; immense technological opportunities and risk; threats of undue foreign influence; and the ever-blurring boundaries of public and private sectors.

The APS must respond to this environment by prioritising public integrity as it never has before. To justify public trust, the APS must aim for overall institutional integrity. With the pursuit of clear purpose, the APS will drive performance. With legitimacy, the APS will enshrine key process values. By keeping its commitments the APS will make sure it is a trusted partner. With robust accountability mechanisms and aligned incentives, the APS will offer the public the assurance it requires.

Neither the APS nor the government of the day can control every factor that determines public trust. But a regime based on institutional integrity, place it in the best position possible to be an essential and trusted Australian institution into 2030 and beyond.

This article originally appeared in The Mandarin