Thanks is enough: season of giving over for bureaucrats

By David Donaldson

January 13, 2016

Tasmania wants to change the culture around giving gifts to government employees ahead of promised rule changes, following a report that found “systemic failure” around regulation. Apple Isle public servants are being urged to ask the public not to give them gifts, but instead “send us a simple card, a letter or an email” to convey thanks.

The state’s Integrity Commission is offering public agencies free posters, template letters to send to suppliers, flyers and website banners to educate the public about the integrity risks of gift-giving as part of its “Thanks is Enough” awareness campaign.

The drive’s core message “is that simple expressions of appreciation from the public and businesses are welcomed, but if that expression involves a gift then it presents risks to the employee and the public authority involved. Therefore thanks is enough’,” the commission said.

thanks is enough

The Integrity Commission’s report, published in September, argues Tasmanian State Service agencies have displayed “a fundamental misunderstanding” and “concerning complacency” on the issue of gifts and benefits.

Agencies were leaving their employees without the clarity, training and support they need in dealing with gifts and benefits, commission CEO Diane Merryfull explained at the time.

“Public servants should not expect to get anything extra for doing the job …”

“Public servants should not expect to get anything extra for doing the job that they are paid to do — except for the thanks of the community,” she said.

The Mercury obtained a list of declared gifts at state agencies — the State Growth Department accepted the most — which ranged from a $1500 “sporting function” package, paid flights and accommodation and alcohol all the way down to “three homegrown apples” and 10 square metres of pine bark.

The state government says it will create uniform guidelines around gifts and benefits for the public sector and publish a register of gifts over a certain value. The new rules are in the final stages of completion, following input from departments, and will be considered by cabinet soon, reports The Mercury.

Last year the Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Greg Johannes raised concerns about a proposed blanket ban on gifts for public servants, suggesting it would prevent anyone from even buying a bureaucrat a cup of coffee.

The commission is also currently running a campaign for Tasmanian public servants to “speak up” to help identify and eradicate misconduct, telling bureaucrats:

“If you notice anything about individual or corporate behaviour that seems unethical, such as favours for mates, undeclared gifts, conflicts of interest or misuse of resources, don’t keep it to yourself — do something about it.”

SA agency staff broke gift rules

Gifts for public servants have become a hot topic. Employees of Renewal SA, the state agency responsible for selling and developing public land, were “scolded” by auditor-general Andrew Richardson for breaching a policy prohibiting the acceptance of gifts, according to The Advertiser.

The agency, also known as the Urban Renewal Authority, allows some staff to receive gifts without executive approval, though those with responsibility for contracting, procurement, payment or property issues are banned from accepting any gifts.

Richardson said in his annual report, tabled in October, that he had discovered “several instances” where the rules were broken and gifts worth up to $100 were accepted. This, he said, had the potential to undermine integrity:

“Given the noncompliance with the gifts and benefits policy, there is an increased risk that inappropriate gifts and benefits may be received which could adversely impact the impartiality, or perceived impartiality, of Urban Renewal officers.”

The auditor-general recommended staff be given advice on the agency’s gifts policy and that management “implement regular formal independent checks to confirm compliance”.

Renewal SA played down the report. A spokesman says accepting food, drink and entertainment is “widely accepted in property and related industries, and therefore as part of normal professional networking it may be appropriate to participate where approval has been provided in accordance with Renewal SA policy”.

The department is reviewing its policy and says it will consider the formulations used by other departments to ensure “staff do not inadvertently breach policy as a result of standard industry practice”. The Renewal SA spokesman told The Mandarin: 

“The auditor-general found that a small number of Renewal SA staff with contracting, procurement, payment or property delegations or authorisations accepted gifts up to a value of $100 in breach of the Gifts and Benefits policy in 2014-15. The breaches involved accepting gifted bottles of wine or food with the majority of the items valued $50 or less and some of which were subsequently donated to the monthly staff charity raffle.

“Late last year, Renewal SA issued a number of reminders to all staff with contracting, procurement, payment or property delegations or authorisations that they​ are precluded from accepting any gifts. In addition, because Renewal SA has recently been undertaking a significant number of expressions of interest, all staff have also been instructed that any gifts be returned to the provider or redistributed (i.e. raffled for charity) until further notice.”

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