Public service values: not just known, but internalised to have integrity impact

By David Donaldson

September 7, 2015

It’s one thing to know the rules, and another entirely to assimilate the principles behind them.

As part of the nation-wide move towards relying more heavily on values over black-letter rules in setting the tone for public service integrity, the Victorian Public Sector Commission has recently updated its employee code of conduct.

This values-focused approach recognises that rules alone are not the best way to prevent abuses, given the capacity of wrongdoers to knowingly exploit loopholes and grey areas. Instead, making values clear acknowledges that people know if they are not acting with integrity. In addition, it sets a clear means of interpreting the rules for all and helps foster an appropriate workplace culture.

Both New South Wales and South Australia have made recent efforts to incorporate a more value-based approach in their public sectors.

But one of the challenges for the VPSC — and others, no doubt — is to ensure that once the appropriate values are instilled in bureaucrats, they are actually acted upon.

Apart from the code of conduct, the commission issues a suite of supplementary materials. There are practical guidelines to make public sector values real, discussing issues such as what to do in cases of conflict. The VPSC has run workshops to talk people through scenarios and “try to make it really real to them”, explained Victoria’s public sector commissioner Belinda Clark in an interview with The Mandarin, in which she also encouraged public servants to try new things.

Yet “we’ve still got distressing and disappointing failures of integrity”, she says. As part of the capability review it is currently undertaking, the VPSC will look at how education about public sector values can be made more effective.

“Often what we find when we go to a situation is people do know about the code, and they’ve got quite a good policy on conflict of interest or gifts, but somehow that hasn’t translated into action. So somehow there’s a missing bit.

“That’s what we’re putting our minds to. How do you make people live the values? I think we’ve done a good job until now promulgating them. They are pretty well known. We get a lot of hits on the website. But there’s some gap we’ve seen in recent things that have gone on obviously between knowledge and assimilation or ownership,” Clark stated.

“So one of the things we’re looking at in the business case [for the capability strategy] is how do we expand or make more effective our educative function? For example, is there anything we can learn from behavioural insights that tells us how people absorb something?

“So one of the things we want to look at is how can we improve that? How can we be stronger there? I don’t know the answer to that yet.”

Valuing equality and diversity

Clark argues that part of the values focus of the commission is to support traditionally marginalised groups to find meaningful engagement within the public sector workforce.

The values legislated within the Act include respect, responsiveness, impartiality, integrity and accountability.

“Then it says there’s leadership to make those happen, then to underpin that again there’s human rights,” she explains. “One of the things that I try to bring to the fore when speaking to groups is to say that human rights are about equality and diversity, among other things.”

The VPSC’s role in this twofold.Firstly, it contributes by sharing data to help make assessments — on the number of women in executive roles within the bureaucracy, for example. Clark admits that data quality can vary, given that the VPSC is reliant on agencies to first hand over the information to it “so there’s an issue there we’d like to look at … but at least there’s that collation and analysis.”

Secondly, the commission sometimes plays a direct role in boosting representation. The VPSC runs Aboriginal Pathways, a program to assist indigenous applicants into the Victorian public service graduate program.

The commission has recently been asked to extend that to cadetships and scholarship, the idea being to better develop a pipeline of potential recruits. “The program’s relatively successful in selecting Aboriginal graduates and finding them placements and relative longevity in those careers, so that’s good,” she says. “But the numbers actually coming in are small, something between 7 and 12.”

But to a large extent the VPSC’s role is in pushing cultural change to ensure people from minority groups are given opportunities across the board.

“I don’t want other minority groups that are subject to that principle to be overlooked either. I’m very mindful of people with disabilities, anybody whose right to participate and get the same opportunities in the public service needs to be respected and upheld.

“Our role in that is to just remind people, I think. There are other bodies that are charged with the carriage. You’ve got the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission and people like that who do a good job at just reminding people that those are the public sector values.”

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