Framing ethics from good principles: Graeme Head's new guide

By Harley Dennett

January 30, 2015

A fresh approach to promoting ethical behaviour in the public sector is underway in New South Wales. If ICAC, the state’s fearsome Independent Commission Against Corruption, is the end of the line, then the Public Service Commission has gone right back to the beginning.

They’ve produced a new guide — Behaving Ethically — helpful to any Australian public sector jurisdiction. The material is being introduced to departments and agencies through a roadshow as well as being put into induction programs internally and through leadership schools.

picThere’s reason to be excited about the impact this material could bring — it’s based on a foundation of good research about how public servants actually approach the situations they face. Other jurisdictions are being invited to learn more at a conference in May.

There is a lot of interest in these issues at the moment, says public service commissioner Graeme Head. But until a few years ago, before his commission was created, there was nobody in NSW with the responsibility to challenge and educate the sector on ethics and values. “Of course, the events over the last couple of years have simply served to underscore just how important it is that we’re having that dialogue,” he told The Mandarin.

Instead of laying down the law with a rules-based approach, the commission has gone back to first principles. Do all public servants know the basic characteristics of the Westminster system, or what the principle of the public interest means?

Head says he wanted to help public sector employees reason from those first principles how to manage the diverse situations in which they will find themselves.

“These days when we have a wider range of the people looking into the public service from different employment backgrounds, it’s very important that we recognise that people will have different levels of understanding of features of our system, and if we want people to understand how to manage their conduct, all that starts with an appreciation of how our system works,” he said.

“There wasn’t a particularly good comprehensive resource around of ethical conduct. It’s been designed as an online resource rather than just a print document, because we want people to use it as a reference to help them navigate through situations that they’re encountering, and that’s why we used various examples of things that people might encounter. It is a fresh approach in how ethics is being discussed in the public sector employees generally.”

The St James Ethics Centre was commissioned to do a stocktake of ethics issues, policies and control systems in the sector. It identified the types of challenges currently faced, ranging from restructuring fatigue, mixed messages from leadership, or being demoralised by challenges in managing underperformance, through to more direct pressures on decision-making and non-transparent influences. The new guide has been written to help employees navigate these situations and other concerns identified in the People Matter employee survey, particularly around culture and morale.

Context is everything, Head says, and culture plays a big part in how employees see the expectations on them.

“How people understand their obligations can’t be divorced from the culture and climate of the organisation.”

“How people understand their obligations can’t be divorced from the culture and climate of the organisation,” he said. “A big part of supporting people and requiring people to act ethically and supporting them in that endeavour is creating an organisational climate that is conducive to that conduct in what are often referred to as ‘speak up’ cultures these days.

“Processes that undermine that culture are not just creating things that affect productivity and performance, they’re also creating a climate that undermines some of these issues … The requirements you place on people have to be clear, you have to understand them, but we also have to direct our effort at creating organisations that through the way they approach things create an environment that encourage people to act that way. That is broader than just getting the policies and rules right.”

Fundamentally, Head and the commission had designed a tool to help public servants and other public sector workers help themselves, not for ICAC, the ombudsman’s office or other watchdog agencies to thump them with. Although they were consulted in formulating what situations and behaviours can be the most difficult. Many of the situations outlined in the guide would never come up for watchdog agencies; for example, how to negotiate the pressures when giving advice to ministers and their staff.

Next week, Head will release the final version of a new code of ethics and conduct for NSW government sector employees. It will bring the state into line with other jurisdictions on a number of important areas such as requirements for disclosure of interests where they conflict with official responsibilities. “It’s a material improvement of the robustness of the system in NSW,” he said.

A new employment portal has also been developed, updating the existing practice guides and migrating them to the web, including guidance around misconduct.

More at The Mandarin: Graeme Head on the frameworks to reform in the NSW sector

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