It's not just cricket: declarations, disclosure and nepotism in government procurement

Malcolm Turnbull's first attempt to rustle up a Prime Minister's XI (assuming he played any part in it) proved something of a flop; just over a week ago, the Kiwis dispatched his cricket team by 102 runs during the match at Manuka Oval.

Nonetheless, plenty of Canberrans had a great time, particularly those lucky enough to score corporate hospitality. And, according to the Informant's informants, scores of those guests in the boxes and marquees were senior executive service officers, enjoying the game, grog and gourmet nibbles courtesy of their agencies' business partners.

Now, we at the Informant are not hair-shirted prigs. We don't believe public servants should lead abstemious lives and deny themselves any whiff of pleasure or comfort that comes their way as a result of their work. Nor do we think there's an awful lot of public interest at play when senators use estimates hearings to track down, for example, how much money agencies spend on coffee machines and whatnot. (Their ability to access such information is, however, very much in the public interest.)

But we can't help but wonder how many of the SES who enjoyed their day at Manuka paused, however briefly, to consider whether they should accept such hospitality. That's the least they were required to do according to most agencies' gift policies: to think about the ethics involved and perhaps chat with a more senior officer before accepting free tickets. We also wonder how many of the recipients formally disclosed the gift. The value of the tickets was higher than the disclosure threshold for most government agencies (usually between $20 and $100). But we'll probably never know who disclosed what because, as readers may recall, our survey last month of the 20 largest APS workplaces showed that none make their gift registries public.

We won't retread the ground we covered last month, but there is an another, related point worth making. Disclosing gifts publicly is only half of the step required to deter nepotism and corruption. Knowing which official receives which indulgences from whom does matter, but it doesn't answer the more important question: what service is the gift-giver seeking from the official? What's the intended transaction?

When the gift-giver represents a business (such as one that hires a corporate box at the cricket), the answer to that question is familiarity, even friendship. They want their business to be fresh on the minds of public service decision-makers. They want their business to be the first name thought of when an official decides who should bid in a limited tender, or which firms on a panel should be approached about a job.

So, yes, disclosing gifts publicly – if an agency head had the spunk to dare try it – could help to reveal hitherto hidden conflicts of interest and potentially compromised procurements. But a far more effective step would be to name publicly the public servants who sit on tender assessment panels or who decide which businesses win government work. These individuals presently face almost no direct public scrutiny. Naming them would be a powerfully simple, cheap way to encourage them to be mindful of the need to uphold probity. It might even remind them to disclose any close friendship with tenderers that had somehow slipped their mind – an anecdotally common occurrence in the APS.