In the middle of November the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Glyn Davis, and the Public Service Commissioner, Gordon de Brouwer, published, with a flourish, a report titled Louder than Words: An APS Integrity Action Plan. It's a good idea as it would seem that integrity in the Australian Public Service needs a boost.
The document was prepared by a taskforce set up by the Secretaries Board whose members, in the best traditions of the public service, would appear to prefer to remain anonymous. That's a good thing.
Despite its silly title, the document contains some good ripe material. It organises itself around what it calls "three action areas ... culture, systems and accountability" and it makes a neat five recommendations under each of these.
For example: under "culture" the recommendations include appointing the right leaders, giving them the right incentives and promoting "role clarity" under "systems" more and better advice to staff, good record keeping and a stronger "culture of legality" are commended, and under "accountability" a "strategic approach to integrity", doing something about the integrity of suppliers and getting relevant data are suggested.
The report's recommendations are supported by a host of processes and new or revived procedures including making sure integrity is a part of performance appraisal, an "Integrity Maturity Framework", a "Suppliers Code of Conduct", an "Integrity Good Practice Guide", training and awareness, an "Ethics and Integrity Champions Network", a number of groups and committees including a "Strategic Integrity Advisory Group" and so on.
If this can be made to work there will be a lot going on, much of which should be useful. However, too much weight should not be put on the notion that dangling the prospect of a Public Service Medal could give a significant boost to integrity.
Drs Davis and de Brouwer say that "the taskforce was asked to take a bird's eye view of the APS integrity landscape, to identify gaps and look for opportunities to build upon the important work already progressing across the service."
Apart from fleeting references to robodebt and the PwC misfortunes, the report doesn't give much of a view of the "integrity landscape". For example: there is no overview of the overall condition of the "landscape" and how that might be perceived by the community or by staff in the public service there is no significant reflection on how major recent unfortunate bits and pieces of APS history might have affected the "landscape" virtually no relevant data is described - disciplinary statistics, the results of surveys on how staff perceive their secretaries, SES and immediate supervisors, and there is no attempt to describe or draw lessons from the history of attempts to regulate the behaviour of staff in ways that keep integrity on the most even keel possible.
That is to say, it largely eschews many of the usual means of sorting out public policy. Sure it devotes many words to defining lofty objectives but it doesn't much try to define problems, collect related data, set out histories of events including helpful chronologies and analyse such material before landing on solutions.
Rather the report goes more or less directly from objectives to recommendations and the means to implement them.
This is less than ideal and it gives the report a hit-and-miss feel.
It hits some worthy targets yet leaves an uneasy sense that somethings might have been missed, and they have.
Let's take the matter of conflicts of interest.
The legal base for the regulation of such conflicts is contained in section 13(7) of the Public Service Act which curiously doesn't get a mention in the taskforce report which elsewhere rightly emphasises the need to keep a keen eye on legal requirements.
Anyway, that section says that "An APS employee must: (a) take reasonable steps to avoid any conflict (real or apparent) in the connection with the employee's APS employment, and (b) disclose any material personal interest of the employee in connection with the employee's APS employment."
The section is supported by the act's values, code of conduct and disciplinary provisions.
These laws represent the evolution over the last 50 years from the regulation of staff behaviour significantly by the blanket prohibition of various activities with adherence watched and acted upon by "management", to laws based on values, principles and guidelines relying significantly on individual staff declaring conflicts and then having them resolved. Much of this was very much for the good.
While it wasn't the first step in the move from provisions based on prohibition to declaration, that development owes much to the 1979 Bowen Committee Report on Public Duty and Private Interest, a most admirable document in the literature of conflicts of interest.
The taskorce betrays no sensitivity to these trends and it doesn't give a document of the Bowen Report's immense significance a mention. Thus, it does not address the question of whether there is a case for more use of prohibition rather than relying on principles and declarations.
And so the report laments (or at least notes) that procedures for post separation employment seem to have fallen into disuse or just disappeared in some agencies. It therefore recommends developing specific processes for declaring and managing conflicts of interest, including for post separation employment. But as the taskforce hasn't considered the history, it doesn't ponder why procedures have not lasted and whether they should be revived in primary legislation where they can less easily be avoided.
That could be worth thinking about because experience suggests that without primary legislation on post separation employment, for example, any rejuvenated administrative procedures will disappear in the way their predecessors have.
The report makes much of the need to have "conversations" about integrity as a means of improving the "culture". It's possible that can help but sitting around and gas-bagging will only advance the cart so far.
A more assured way of changing culture is to change the Public Service Act in more substantive ways than making stewardship a value and adding a "purpose statement" that will not self-evidently make roles clearer.
There is a case for stronger primary laws for the regulation of the behaviour of officials, especially on conflicts of interest. In overlooking history and experience the integrity taskforce has missed an opportunity to try to advance improvements in the integrity culture by means that cannot be wriggled around as can values, principles and administrative procedures. Maybe that's something that could be considered by the "Strategic Integrity Advisory Group" or the "Ethics and Integrity Champions Network" with a clutch of Public Service Medals up for grabs as an incentive.
- Paddy Gourley is a former senior public servant. email@example.com.