We recognise the continuous and deep connection to Country, of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first peoples of this nation. In this way we respectfully acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of this land, sea, the waters and sky. We pay tribute to the Elders past and present as we also respect the collective ancestry that has brought us all here today.
The March 2023 Senate Inquiry into management and assurance of integrity by consulting services offered the perfect pedestal to reignite a long-wielded stigma that consultants are self-interested, greedy, and unethical. So, in a climate where our profession is viewed unfavourably by many in the community, we would like to share our perspectives on what ‘integrity’ means to a consultant.
While the feeling may not always be mutual, consultants who work with the Australian Government, consider themselves a proud extension of the public service.
Consultancies inherently do not have perfectly aligned interests to the Commonwealth. Consultancy firms are running a business, creating a market profile and managing a reputation, to ensure their staff are remunerated and provided opportunities to develop their skills and experiences. These are different to the Commonwealth, an entity whose purpose is to deliver critical programs and services to support, serve and protect Australia, its citizens and its interests.
Despite these different perspectives, the alignment of interests are typically clear. Consultants want to do good work that meets the client’s needs in order to ensure payment for services, as well as creating a positive market profile and contributing value. Further, consultants are motivated by doing good work for their clients. In some cases (such as for Sententia Consulting), the support for the Government and our community is a driving part of a firm’s vision.
These are areas of alignment between Commonwealth agencies and its consultants, that can help to ensure that the intersections of interest exceed the deviations of interest.
It should be noted that the mere existence of deviations of interest does not mean that consultants do not have the best interests of the public sector and community in mind when delivering on behalf of the Australian Government.
Looking at integrity mechanisms, consultants play by traditional rules. The most significant measure that supports prevention of unethical conduct or breach of contracts, are the professional obligations imposed on consultants by their professions. Leading consultants are members of professional bodies, which supports excellence and professionalism in their chosen area of expertise. Whether that be accountants, lawyers, engineers, information technology, project and procurement professionals, assurance providers, medical consultants, trainers and teachers or other areas of recognised expertise, there is a professional body which requires consultants to act with integrity and consistent with applicable laws. For consultants, that professional membership represents a form of “license to operate” and a way to maintain their market leadership.
The necessity for consultants to consistently display integrity through delivery cannot be overstated, to manage and promote a trustworthy market profile and reputation for their firm that supports ongoing viability of their businesses. Agencies do not select consultancies that have a reputation lacking credibility, ethics, or compliance. In this regard, it is noteworthy that there are hundreds of consultancies underway across the Australian Government at any one time, and the vast majority of them take place ethically with value-driven outcomes. These tend not to be the engagements you hear about.
The use of consultants is an important part of managing risks to public sector integrity. While the Australian Public Service at large is filled with highly talented, capable, and dedicated staff, they do not (and cannot) have all of the skills, depth of expertise and breadth of perspective that is necessary to always do everything in the scope of an agency to the highest possible standard.
Consultants bring specific deep expertise and experience as well as a breadth of perspective that comes from working across organisations and sectors, that helps to ensure that public sector outcomes are delivered with quality, efficiency and integrity.
So, what is the answer to the original question? Consultants are typically highly aware of and attuned to the potential for conflicts of interest or integrity breaches. While there have been some notable exceptions, most consultancies engaged by the Australian Government deliver effectively, with integrity and consistent with the contractual and professional obligations. Integrity in the consulting industry is still a thriving principle, and, speaking for Sententia Consulting, remains at the forefront of all engagements.
Regardless of which side of the fence you sit on in your support for the use of consultants, it’s undeniable that consultants serve an important role in supporting the Australian Government in delivering outcomes for our country.