Anti-corruption boss reminds public servants of conflict of interest obligations

By Shannon Jenkins

Wednesday June 2, 2021

SA government agencies claim they can’t support the needs of cloud computing. (Image: Adobe/dudlajzov)

The South Australian corruption watchdog has outlined in a new report how public servants should best identify, disclose and manage their conflicts of interest.

The report has been prompted by past ICAC investigations, including two ‘significant’ investigations within one agency, according to independent commissioner against corruption Ann Vanstone.

“My review of all these investigations has convinced me there is good reason to remind all public officers of the need to identify, disclose and manage conflicts of interest,” she said on Tuesday.

“There should be open and regular discussion with public officers about how to deal effectively with conflicts of interest.”

Noting that conflict of interest obligations vary for different roles, Vanstone has identified three fundamental principles when it comes to conflicts of interest:

  • Identify — Public officers must be aware of their personal interests, public duties and responsibilities, and conflict or perception of conflict in order to identify a conflict of interest.
  • Disclose — Conflicts of interest should be disclosed — in writing to a manager, supervisor, or agency head — as soon as practicable. Vanstone warned that intentionally inaccurate disclosures could ‘give rise’ to corruption allegations, and encouraged disclosures to contain enough information to allow them to be managed effectively.
  • Manage — Public servants should involve a more senior public officer in the management of the conflict, who should then review, assess, and plan the management of the disclosure.

The report has also outlined public administration functions that are at risk of being undermined when conflicts are poorly handled, including procurement, staff recruitment, contract management, and the engagement of consultants and contractors.

READ MORE: SA Health boss to keep job after conflicts of interest investigation

Grants programs could also be compromised by conflicts of interest, Vanstone warned.

“Both state and local government disburse a wide array of grants and sponsorships for a multitude of programs and initiatives,” she wrote.

“Funding priorities and selection criteria will be subject to change in government policy or direction. However, the guiding notions of impartiality, merit and transparency should remain firm.

“Those charged with deciding who receives funding or support are obliged to do so in a way that does not generate perceptions of unfair advantage. Conflicts of interest in grant programs will be more apparent in smaller communities, where public officers’ will have close involvement in community interests.”

Outside of SA, several federal and state government grant programs have come under fire over the past year, for favouring certain grant applicants or electorates.

This includes NSW’s Stronger Communities Fund, and the commonwealth’s Safer Communities Fund, the Building Better Regions Fund, and the ‘sports rorts’ program. In the case of the sports grant program, senator Bridget McKenzie lost her ministerial role after she was found to be an undeclared member of a gun club that received funding.

Vanstone has called on public servants to review their conflict of interest policies, procedures, controls and guidance, and for agencies to remind staff of their obligations.

“The appropriate identification, disclosure and management of conflicts of interest is a duty incumbent on all public officers and public authorities. This is vital to ensure the public remains confident in the fair and impartial provision of public goods and services, and to ensure that delivery of goods and services is protected from corrupt conduct,” she said.

“Most importantly, public authorities should regularly instruct their staff on their conflict of interest obligations. Conflicts of interest are a recurring incident of the work of all public officers; likewise the obligations should be regularly restated.”

READ MORE: Sports rorts: McKenzie denies taking the fall for PM


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