South Australia’s Independent Commissioner Against Corruption, Bruce Lander, warns government agencies that reports of corruption and workplace misbehaviour must be tackled head-on, not swept under the carpet.
The standard damage-control playbook is neither acceptable nor appropriate, he says, and employees must feel safe to report misconduct and blow the whistle on corruption. That is not currently the case.
A new report from Lander’s office, which includes the Office for Public Integrity, explores disturbing results from a voluntary survey of 12,656 public officers conducted in mid-2018 (just over 10% of the workforce). The data could easily give one the impression that the SA public sector is a hive of corruption, laziness, incompetence, bullying, nepotism, favouritism and politicisation.
“Survey participants from every agency spoke of perceived incidents of bullying and harassment, and nepotism and favouritism,” Lander writes. “Some responses strongly emphasised the toll those behaviours have had on the wellbeing of staff. All public officers have a right to be treated fairly and appropriately and to be safe at work.”
A different survey with about twice as many respondents also revealed alarming levels of perceived bullying and harassment.
The report is mostly made of direct anonymous quotes from the survey, which staff used to unload a litany of complaints of almost every kind of bad office behaviour imaginable. There are lots of claims of sexism, racism, ageism and general workplace hostility. There are tales of sexual harassment, cliques of mates flouting the rules to help each other, and everything from laziness through incompetence to severe politicisation of the public service and outright criminality by senior staff.
The commissioner hopes the good people in senior levels of the government and the bureaucracy take the report seriously.
Bullying was raised more frequently by women than men, and most commonly in responses from the South Australian Attorney-General’s Department followed by Health, Education, Child Protection, Human Services and Correctional Services. Out of just 20 responses from the Courts Administration Authority seven mentioned bullying and harassment.
A previous ICAC report based on the same survey made it abundantly clear to ministers and senior public servants that all is not well within the public sector. A few messages come through loud and clear in both reports. A lot of public servants believe various forms of corruption and misconduct are common, many are afraid to report it, and many believe reporting is pointless anyway.
The new report reinforces these themes:
“The survey has produced numerous stories of fear and anxiety around reporting inappropriate conduct and practices ‘I would be scared to report ….’, or complete apathy about the utility of reporting ‘because I don’t think anything would change’ and it ‘is a waste of time’.
“Many participants spoke of being victimised for having made a report, particularly by those in more senior positions. Some participants reported consequences as significant as losing their job or their workplace becoming so untenable that individuals felt compelled to leave. There should be no risk to those who speak up about inappropriate conduct.”
Lander previously called on agencies to read the December report and review their operations. “The survey identified widespread and significant concern amongst public officers about reporting impropriety, both internally and to an outside agency,” he said at the time.
“The results indicated widespread anxiety amongst public officers about making a report and high levels of dissatisfaction with the manner in which their organisation dealt with their report and communicated with the reporter.”
In the new report, he sharply warns that when serious complaints are made, the first concern of executives should never be what it looks like for the agency. When reputational harm is the primary concern, it’s fair to say the government does not have its priorities in order.
In an ideal world it would go without saying that brushing such complaints or reports aside as quickly as possible is the wrong approach. Lander feels the need to say it, however, and not for the first time.
“As was said in my 2013-14 Annual Report, a public authority should not aim at the outset to minimise the seriousness of the conduct, diminish responsibility for inappropriate conduct or camouflage poor systems or procedures for the purpose of ensuring the best ‘look’ for an organisation.
“Those who conduct a superficial internal investigation directed towards minimising reputational harm to an organisation are acting inappropriately and irresponsibly.
“When concerns are raised about potential corruption, misconduct or maladministration the overarching focus should be in determining the truth and minimising opportunities for further corruption, misconduct or maladministration.”
People who report suspected corruption or complain about perceived misconduct have a “vital role” in any integrity system, says Lander, who also reminds SA government agencies of their responsibilities to set up official whistleblowing channels and protect informants who meet the relevant criteria under the state’s new public-interest disclosure legislation.
Most schemes to encourage whistleblowers to go through official channels, whether in the private sector or public sector, are disappointing to those who try to use them. Often such schemes allow employers to neutralise complaints with the kind of superficial inquiries described above, or the informant finds that in their attempt to jump through the hoops, they have failed to correctly execute the complex aerial manoeuvre required to receive protection from legal or disciplinary action.
Lander says that on its own, SA’s public-interest disclosure scheme cannot bridge the “confidence gap” that prevents people coming forward. A “strong integrity culture” within each agency is required.
“If public officers were confident that their report would be appropriately considered and they did not fear losing their job or becoming a potential target for retaliation, they would be more likely to share their concerns and feedback which would be to the benefit of public administration in general.”
Pre-empting a likely response, Lander is the first to acknowledge the limitations of the survey, which was voluntary and not necessarily a representative sample. It demonstrates a strong perception that misconduct and corruption is widespread and poorly addressed, but is not hard evidence. It is not clear if it reflects views formed recently or over a longer period of time, he notes, and problematic incidents might be irregular or in isolated pockets rather than a common occurrence across the board.
“Nonetheless the perceptions exist and must be considered carefully,” he writes in the eye-opening report.
The survey also revealed a lot of disquiet about dodgy processes, questionable decisions and improper work practices like “poor management of confidential records” along with the interpersonal complaints.
Lander says he wrote to several agency heads and asked them to look into specific claims about breaches of confidentiality affecting their employees, clients or medical patients.
The ICAC has commenced an unspecified number of own-motion assessments, referrals and investigations and “communicated tailored quantitative results” about certain agencies to senior public servants and ministers.