Anti-corruption commissioners unite to demand public sector leaders take integrity more seriously

By Stephen Easton

October 30, 2019

Top to bottom, L-R: Dennis Cowdroy, ACT Integrity Commissioner; Lea Drake, Commissioner for Integrity, NSW Law Enforcement Conduct Commission; Peter Hall, Chief Commissioner, NSW ICAC; Alan MacSporran, Queensland Crime and Corruption Commissioner; Bruce Lander, SA ICAC; John McKechnie, WA Corruption and Crime Commissioner; Robert Redlich, IBAC Victoria; and Ken Fleming, NT ICAC.

Nine anti-corruption commissioners from across Australia all say public sector leaders must take the risk of corruption more seriously in a strongly-worded open letter, but how many will take the time to read it?

The independent watchdogs say senior public servants should consider risks to integrity just as important as risks to health and safety, do more to encourage and support whistleblowers, and foster cultures of integrity.

Corruption is not just a minor issue that mostly happens elsewhere and the commissioners warn its “scale and impact” should not be underestimated. In some cases hundreds of millions of dollars have been stolen from Australian communities, while the stench of dodgy behaviour undermines public trust and the mud sprays over all politicians and public servants to some extent.

“But it is equally important to remain vigilant to the myriad of smaller-scale cases that may not attract public attention, but taken together, can have a significant impact,” says the missive, signed by the commissioners charged with upholding integrity and uncovering corruption in the public sectors and law enforcement agencies of every state and territory.

Building cultures of integrity and stronger support for whistleblowers are two key strategies that must be “relentlessly pursued” by public service chiefs, they argue.

“Corruption flourishes when it is not called out, witnesses look the other way, or it is swept under the carpet,” they observe. When corruption, misconduct or maladministration is exposed, they say agency heads should face it head-on and look on the bright side; it is “an opportunity to continuously build corruption resistance” after all.

Corruption can’t be detected without whistleblowers. The anti-corruption chiefs say it is not enough for people to know they are theoretically entitled to some sort of protection from detrimental action as a result of their disclosure; public sector leaders have to actively promote such official reporting channels and clearly explain “how and where” to access those protections as a matter of priority.

“To come forward, disclosers must feel safe and genuinely believe they will be supported. Public sector leaders should cultivate environments where their staff genuinely feel safe to speak up.”

This kind of culture is “vitally important” to the work of the nine integrity and anti-corruption commissioners that signed the message, and they point out that bad behaviour on the part of individual people is not actually the main issue at hand.

“When viewed holistically, corruption is properly seen as not just about individual failure but as a reflection on an institution’s overall integrity. Addressing the organisational setting in which corruption occurs is the key to succeeding in the fight against it.”

The message starts with a reminder of why the public sector isn’t just like a group of businesses. There are rules and standards of conduct that bind elected governments, statutory officers and public servants alike.

“Such standards, for example, are directed to the avoidance or the management of conflicts of interest, in the protection of probity in tendering or procurement or in protecting confidential Government or other information.

“Governments act, or at all events are constitutionally required to act to ensure integrity in the processes of government. Similarly, public officials are required to act without regard to private interest, but with integrity and in the public interest.”

The commissioners typically find a pattern of behaviours that together “form a powerful incubator” for corruption, according to the open letter:

  • An individual officer conceals or fails to disclose wrongdoing.
  • Colleagues who suspect or witness the officer’s conduct are reluctant or unwilling to report it for various reasons, including fear of being punished.
  • A supervisor fails to apply rigour and sufficient standards within their team to effectively guard against corruption risks. They are apathetic or unwilling to fully explore wrongdoing, or consider the role of other team members.
  • Internal governance or complaints teams have ineffective systems for identifying and reporting corrupt conduct. They may focus on individual behaviours, hoping that simply removing ‘rotten apples’ will be enough.
  • Senior managers focus on getting the job done at all costs, failing to recognise the need for systemic vigilance against poor standards. Senior management does not see how a culture of cutting corners enables corruption to take hold.
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