Quashing cronyism in the public service

By Melissa Coade

Wednesday April 21, 2021

(Image: Adobe/Rafael Ben-Ari)

Cronyism is one of the leading examples of reported corruption in the public service, according to the latest APS employee census. What will it take to cure it?

It’s a problem that was thrown into the parliamentary spotlight last week, with the testimony of former AusPost CEO Christine Holgate to a senate inquiry about the political nature of her sacking.

The role of cronyism allegations in Ms Holgate’s rebuke of the AusPost board hinged on what she saw as the effect of politically motivated board appointments. She also suggested that her sacking (the board say she volunteered to stand aside) was a political move, designed to oust a CEO who was opposed to postal service privatisation and in an effort to “curry favour” with the government (claims denied by the board chair). 

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The story follows a classic narrative of alleged cronyism that sees jobs for mates and decisions made on the basis of what your friends think. In the public service, it also plays into the trope of bureaucrats being ‘yes men’ who lack creative vision or are less inclined to take the harder road even if it is the most meritorious approach. 

How interesting it is then that across 12 government departments, APS employees reported in the latest census that cronyism was the number one form of corruption they had observed at work in the last year. According to the public servants themselves, cronyism is a problem that needs to be fixed.

Diagnosing the problem

Organisational psychologist Carys Chan from Griffith University told The Mandarin that the mere perception of cronyism is indicative of other toxic traits in a workplace. One where there is a relevant mistrust for the senior leadership, or where a particular clique has claimed influence and power at the exclusion of others. A workplace like this is not just bad for the individual — it suffers from groupthink and can become vulnerable to other stronger brands of corruption.

When people view a certain cronyism or favouritism taking place it actually leads to a divide between some of the in-group or closer members, be they a leader or favoured co-worker, versus those who are also close to these group of people,” Dr Chan says.

“When a culture is just negative, it leads to a negative spiral because anything that the in-group does will always be viewed as negative, favouritism, cronyism by out-group members.”

Left to flourish, even the less overt forms of cronyism — like a manager’s decision to consult with a select person or group of people in a team (‘Is it in my head, or am I actively being excluded?’) — can still have a devastating impact on an organisation, its perceived culture of trust and therefore productivity.

Unequivocal examples of cronyism, often simply referred to as corruption, usually intersect with other types of abuse of power such as bullying, conflicts of interest, abuse of discretion, nepotism and trading in influence. 

Victoria’s Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) recently published a paper on how the public sector could strengthen its integrity responses during times of crisis. It flagged that the period of rapid service-delivery as the government responded to COVID-19 has been a time of risk to proper governance and oversight. In this climate, where it is expedient to skip due process or there is an environment where conflicts of interest are poorly managed, the conditions for cultivating cronyism are made.

In the APS census, survey respondents were given the choice of “cronyism — the preferential treatment of friends, such as appointing them to positions without proper regard to merit” as a type of corrupt behaviour. Even where the number of respondents to report corrupt conduct were small, such as in the AG’s department (1% of respondents reported witnessing corruption), a high proportion of those responses (95%) were aligned with perceived cronyism.

Griffith University’s Dr Carys Chan.

Dr Chan acknowledges that while some of the subtle examples of cronyism can be difficult to pin-point, or may be coloured by dissatisfaction with a particular leader or co-worker, there is usually ‘no smoke without fire’. Most times cronyism points to a workplace culture that lacks transparency, is not open to change, and does not encourage or meaningfully act on disclosures, she says. It is also a strong indicator that employees perceive colleagues who can act with impunity and for whom real consequences do not exist (or are seen to be protected from formal complaints processes).

“To have the perceived preferential treatment in the [APS Census] where people answered that some people were preferentially treated, shows to me that perhaps there is a general mistrust culture in that organisation or the public service,” Dr Chan says.

“Perhaps it’s also driven by more recent behaviours that are happening due to a lack of transparency, as well as a lack of consequences for a lot of wrongdoing in the public service.”

A department-wide commitment to change

To cure a department of cronyism and other negative cultural implications of this kind of corruption, Dr Chan suggests conducting more in-depth, anonymised surveys. While it takes a serious investment of time and money, the process of subjecting leaders to an anonymised 360-degree evaluation survey can invite some honest perspective on what their colleagues really think about them and the wider workplace culture.

“An organisational psychologist would recommend even middle managers – because they are leaders in their own right – to have a 360 degree feedback survey, which are usually anonymous. This gives them a heads up as to how their subordinates or their co-workers might perceive them.”

Dr Chan says that while this information can be valuable, she has seen many larger organisations who go to the effort of obtaining the data fail to use it to effect real cultural change. A true commitment to realise cultural change must be there to see real results.

“A lot of this 360-degree feedback might be collected but they are usually not acted upon.

“Looking at places with more hierarchies and more bureaucracy, they tend not to have those sort of open conversations [that a 360-degree survey invites] so it’s really hard to act on any sort of feedback, even from the lower levels,” Dr Chan says. 

Dr Chan has previously written about the negative effects a toxic workplace can have on organisations and its employees

Her advice for departments looking to kill cronyism by fostering a more open culture is to ensure that anonymised channels for feedback to leaders and managers exist. HR leaders and practice managers must also be prepared to act on and address feedback received through these channels, Dr Chan adds.

But here’s the catch — official reporting channels are not enough. Organisations that are open to feedback and positive change excel because other channels that are informal and inclusive exist. 

Government departments provide some sort of employee assistance program (EAP) and, as you know, there are formal mechanisms there,” Dr Chan says.

“If you ask me, the real effective mechanisms would be the informal ones where managers are a lot more caring, there are frequent touch points, they are also open to feedback and act on them.”

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