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Exploring integrity in Australian public services

10 April 2024



Integrity is an ongoing concern in the public sector. Integrity issues such as fraud, ethical violations, theft, and a disregard of legal advice all result in significant public harms. Public service integrity management systems are interconnected frameworks of legislation and Codes of Conduct are intended to reduce these incidents. An article in the Australian Journal of Public Administration assesses the effectiveness of Codes across jurisdictions and finds a lack of evidence about how Codes are monitored, reported on, and reviewed.

Integrity under threat

Evidence indicates that 40 per cent of organisations in the Australian public service experienced at least one instance of fraud during 2014–2016, with 34 per cent of those same organisations experiencing more than 10 fraud incidents in that same period. More recently, the Australian Public Service Commission reported that 571 employees were the subject of an investigation into a suspected breach of the APS Code of Conduct.

Other ethical violations include a Victorian Education Department senior official jailed for conspiring to steal millions of dollars from the public education system. The Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme has highlighted how legal advice was ignored and/or downplayed resulting in significant harms.

The public service integrity management system

Ensuring high levels of integrity is crucial in public administration. The public service integrity management system is an interconnected framework of legislation and institutions, including auditors-general and ombudsman offices, as well as legislated public service principles, values, and Codes of Conduct (CoCs).

CoCs are often embedded within public service employment legislation or related regulatory instruments, and sit alongside financial, criminal, or specific integrity legislation. A CoC is typically defined as a written set of norms that outline what is acceptable behaviour for employees. Such codes include behaviours that are considered virtuous or desired, and often create or link to sanctions for violations.

At the jurisdictional level, CoCs are typically overseen by public service commissions. The monitoring, reporting, and reviewing aspects are critical. While it is increasingly common for public service systems around the world to have a codified CoC, it is accepted that the existence of a CoC itself is insufficient in ensuring ethical behaviour.

About the research

The research developed and applied a benchmarking method to compare what activities different jurisdictions undertake in monitoring, reporting, and reviewing their CoCs. The aim was to create a baseline dataset across Australian jurisdictions but also to permit development and adaptation to other Westminster jurisdictions.

All Australian state and territories as well as the federal Australian Public Service were included in the practical assessment.

What the research found

The study found substantial inconsistency exists between jurisdictions in terms of what publicly available data are collected, reported, and reviewed. The availability and accessibility of data appear poor across jurisdictions. There was no data on staff working knowledge of CoCs and very poor data publicly available on training and investigations.

With regard to monitoring and reporting, data are generally collected centrally and published by a jurisdiction in aggregate. To find agency-level data requires locating the data on the agency’s own website or in their annual reports. This arrangement makes comparisons between agencies within jurisdictions difficult. Comparisons at the agency level are useful because they can assist with determining where integrity investments can be best directed to achieve system-wide improvements.

Only three of the nine jurisdictions had undertaken a review of their integrity system in the last five years. None of the reviews were CoC specific, instead they focused on the broader integrity system. The reviews were also not strongly evidence-based, agency specific or outcomes-focused. Without more detailed and higher-quality reviews, it is not possible to know whether the CoC system in a jurisdiction is working as intended. The researchers conclude that jurisdictions should consider undertaking a CoC-specific, evidence-based, granular, and outcomes-focused review as a priority.

The bottom line

To date, there has been no attempt to benchmark CoCs across the public services. The research fills this gap by developing and applying a benchmarking method to assess the extent to which Australian jurisdictions monitor, report and review their CoCs.

The research shows that jurisdictions report little or no data across a number of areas. Integrity is a key issue within public services and although all jurisdictions do have CoCs, it remains unclear whether their implementation is leading to improved integrity outcomes over time.

Want to read more?

Exploring integrity in Australian public services: A method to benchmark public service codes of conduct – Katie Moon, David Brunoro, James Connor Helen Dickinson and Twan Huybers, Australian Journal of Public Administration, November 2023

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Published Date: 10 April 2024