Tuesday April 18, 2023

Strengthening ‘integrity by default’ in the public service

  • Strengthening ‘integrity by default’ in the public service image

On the most recent episode of Work with Purpose, two public service leaders, Kathy Leigh, Director-General and Head of Service of the ACT Government, and APS Reform Secretary Dr Gordon de Brouwer PSM FIPAA, map out how to further embed integrity culture in the public sector against the backdrop of robodebt.

The Robodebt Royal Commission proceedings have left no one untouched – from those affected directly, to public servants, and to Australia’s communities.

As the commission continues its work, Dr Gordon de Brouwer says that any response to the final findings – which aren’t due until 30 June this year – needs to start with empathy.

“As we talk about the issues, we need to do so with a focus on integrity, but also on empathy with what happened. Especially in thinking about the general public and the people who are directly affected by the policy, I’m personally deeply sorry for what the public service did to them.”

Your feedback is needed – and wanted

At its core, the public service is there to impartially serve the government of the day, and Australia’s communities. In this context, raising concerns isn’t always easy – but it’s a must and you should be prepared to give advice on how to mitigate those issues, according to Kathy Leigh.

“You need to be able to point out to ministers not just the upsides of the things they’d like to do, but also the downsides and the risks. And of course, when you do that, you don’t just point out the downsides. You talk about alternative ways of achieving their objectives, ways that you can mitigate the downsides,” she says.

“I think most ministers, when they see that you’re genuinely trying to identify alternatives and assist them to achieve their objectives, they appreciate that you’re doing that, so that you give them an opportunity upfront to get it right.”

Based on his experience working for former prime minister Tony Abbott, Gordon confirms that most want honest feedback.

“I was very struck when I was first appointed as secretary, and prime minister Abbott called the secretaries together and said, ‘I want you to give me your full and frank advice because frankly, you’re useless to me if you don’t because what do I need people for who just yes?'”

Do it privately and put it in writing

If you want to be serious about your feedback, make sure to seek out a private conversation, and put it all in writing after.

“My experience is that most ministers do appreciate the advice. They do want it in private and they don’t want you, in a sense, advertising your difference or disagreement,” Gordon says.

“If your advice isn’t in writing, then actually when it comes down to the crunch, it’s arguable to say that it never really existed. And that’s one of the abiding lessons for the service: put your advice in writing.”

Make integrity your default

According to Kathy, there is much that public servants can do to encourage integrity culture in their workplaces.

Putting formal mechanisms is one, but what it really comes down to is senior executives leading by example.

“I think there are lots of things that we must do to make sure that the public service has a very strong understanding of what its role is. You can put it in legislation, as we’ve done policies. You need constant training. You need constant promotion,” Kathy says.

“You really need to have deeply ingrained a clear understanding of the role of the public service in impartially supporting the government of the day. It needs to be the default.”

“You need senior leaders to walk the talk and to be known for their integrity. And the more that the senior leadership do that, the more it becomes the culture and the more it becomes self-sustaining.”

Be transparent, acknowledge mistakes

If senior leaders model this behaviour, it also makes it easier for staff to be transparent, even when it comes to recognising mistakes – and making plans for how to tackle them.

“We need to acknowledge when something goes wrong and when we do something wrong. We need to talk about the way it should have been handled,” Kathy says.

“We need to talk about how we’re going to remedy the problem that’s been caused and how we’re going to put in place measures to really minimise the risk that the same thing could ever happen again.”

Supporting a system-wide response

As part of the APS reform agenda, the public service is looking at different structural elements to embed integrity more deeply across the whole system. One starts with legislation, another looks more closely at the performance criteria of all officials.

Going beyond just measuring delivery and outcomes, the APS is looking towards assessing and rewarding good behaviour.

“The government has agreed and it will be in legislation to have independent, transparent capability reviews that look at actually the outcomes and the behaviour of departments as a whole or agencies as a whole,” he says.

“The way you perform with both your delivery and the behaviours you exhibit matter to your position in the service and your promotion and whether you stay in the service.”

Finally, when it comes down to the very basics, getting it right shouldn’t be hard to achieve.

“These things, when it comes to things like integrity, it’s not a woke concept. It’s actually just the law. It’s just a basic legal requirement on you doing your job. But understanding that means that you can do the delivery, you can do all of that, but with integrity.”


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