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.
Author: Gihan Mallawaarachchi
“…But this isn’t going to land me in jail, right?”
This was the response I received from a SES officer when I informed them of material probity risks in a significant procurement process for which they were the delegate. Probity is about as exciting as it is understood and therefore not typically front of mind for most public officials when considering key procurement, granting or spending decisions. However, a change in community expectations, a renewed emphasis on integrity by the Government and a series of reputation-damaging missteps by public officials mean that the importance of good probity management is on the rise.
What is probity?
Probity is not a well-known concept and can be difficult for people to understand (so much so that I was once introduced by a client as working for the firm ‘probity’).
So let’s start at the beginning; probity is the evidence of ethical behaviour and means that decisions are made with integrity, honesty and fairness. In a public sector context, good probity management supports transparency, contestability and accountability in decision making, helping entities achieve value for money and withstand external scrutiny or challenge of their decisions.
Probity is more than just the avoidance of corrupt or dishonest conduct, but rather is concerned with making decisions with the right intentions and in good faith, in line with ethical principles and common values. In short, does it ‘pass the pub-test’; where the actions or decisions need to meet community expectations of honesty and fairness, over and above simply being legal or following an established process. In this way, effective probity management helps to support confidence and trust in public sector decision making and mitigates against the reputational damage that can be caused by actual or perceived misconduct.
Why the importance of probity is on the rise
Probity is a necessary component of good governance and is expected to be demonstrated in any significant decision making process. Working consistent with generally accepted probity principles aligns with the Australian Public Service (APS) Values and is underpinned by certain legislation. Notwithstanding the general importance of probity in the public sector, there have been several developments over the past year that have further emphasised the need for effective probity management and have also highlighted the potential damage that can be caused when individuals or entities fail to uphold ethical principles and community values.
There have been a number of recent and high profile scandals or allegations that have highlighted the significant reputational damage caused to individuals and entities from poor probity management.
Some notable examples include:
- the shortcomings in fairness and impartiality witnessed in recent senior public sector appointments within the Commonwealth and NSW Governments;
- concerns over the integrity of decision making raised in the acquisition of land for the future Western Sydney Airport;
- failures in due process and transparency noted in multiple community grant programs (think the commuter car park scheme and the ‘sports rorts’ affair);
- the management of the ‘Robodebt’ scheme; and
- the criticisms of honesty and transparency in the former Prime Minister’s appointment to multiple ministries.
Such examples have shown that decisions do not necessarily need to cross the threshold of illegality or misconduct, but need only fail to meet community expectations of transparency, honesty and integrity, to cause individuals to lose positions or organisations to suffer irreparable damage.
Community perceptions of trust in government
These scandals also serve to demonstrate how failures in probity management can severely undermine public confidence in public sector decision making and erode trust in government. As stewards of public resources, the integrity of decision making by public officials has a significant influence on the community’s perception of trust in government. It should then serve as a red flag to officials that there is considerable evidence to suggest that community confidence in all levels of government is on the decline.
For example, the seventh annual Ethics Index published by the Governance Institute of Australia showed that public confidence in the public service and government has eroded year on year. In 2022, the Ethics Index scored public service and government at 38, which was down eight points from the 2021 (46) and 18 points from the 2020 (56) ethics scores. This was against the backdrop of a continual decline in Australia’s overall ethics score, which was recorded in the Ethics Index as 42 in 2022, down from 45 in 2021 and 52 in 2020.
While such data may be in contrast to how many public officials consider the integrity of public sector decision making, it is important for officials to recognise that current community sentiment suggests that further attention on probity is needed to restore public confidence in the decisions of the public service and government.
Government’s Pro-Integrity Agenda
Public officials should also recognise the priority being placed by the current Government on strengthening integrity across the APS. In a series of statements last year, the Minister for the Public Service made clear that the Government wants an APS that is ‘pro-integrity’ and that operates consistent with the standards of the community it serves.
This was followed by the appointment of a new Secretary for Public Sector Reform to design and deliver recommendations to strengthen the public sector; the establishment of an APS Integrity Taskforce to identify gaps and opportunities to deliver system wide integrity improvements; and the promotion of a pro-integrity culture across all levels of the APS, where integrity is championed as a core competency of a professional public service.
The pro-integrity agenda suggests that the Government considers there is room to strengthen the probity of public sector decision making and better uphold community expectations of integrity, accountability and transparency.
National Anti-Corruption Commission
In December 2022, the National Anti-Corruption Commission Act 2022 was passed into law, paving the way for the establishment of a powerful and independent National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) later this year. The NACC has extensive powers to investigate and report on corrupt conduct that is serious or systemic. As such, the NACC is expected to shine a strong light on the probity of public sector decision making.
The definition of corrupt conduct under the Act is far-reaching and includes:
- any conduct of any person (whether or not a public official) that adversely affects, or that could adversely affect, either directly or indirectly:
- the honest or impartial exercise of any public official’s powers as a public official; or
- the honest or impartial performance of any public official’s functions or duties as a public official;
- any conduct of a public official that constitutes or involves a breach of public trust;
- any conduct of a public official that constitutes, involves or is engaged in for the purpose of abuse of the person’s office as a public official;
- any conduct of a public official, or former public official, that constitutes or involves the misuse of information or documents acquired in the person’s capacity as a public official.
This means that corrupt conduct does not need to amount to a criminal offence to be investigated by the NACC, but rather only needs to be considered to be serious or systemic. This suggests that severe and deliberate failures in probity may have the potential to fall within the scope of the NACC.
So what does this mean?
Recent high profile scandals and the declining levels of trust in government indicate that the conduct of public officials and institutions are not consistently meeting public expectations for integrity, transparency and accountability. At the same time, there is a heightened focus of Government on establishing a ‘pro-integrity’ APS, as well as a powerful new federal body on the horizon to investigate potential serious and systemic corrupt conduct. These factors suggest that there is an increasing importance being placed on effective probity management in the public sector, and in ensuring that decisions are made with the right intentions and in good faith – rather than simply being lawful or compliant.
Government entities and officials can no longer afford to take a passive approach to probity management by relying on people to ‘do the right thing’ and operate consistent with the APS values or legislative requirements. But rather, there should be a proactive and robust consideration of probity in any significant decision making process, which seeks to identify and mitigate probity risk throughout all stages of the process. In this way, probity should be at the forefront of the minds of public officials in managing the quality and defensibility of public sector decision making.
Gihan Mallawaarachchi is a Partner at Sententia Consulting and specialises in the provision of probity advice and assurance in the public sector. Sententia Consulting’s team of probity professionals are passionate about helping our clients to better understand and manage the probity risks related to their work.
 If you are interested in learning more about the Ethics Index, please visit: https://www.governanceinstitute.com.au/advocacy/ethics-index/