Conflict of interest? ‘No big deal’ say Tasmania’s servants

Tasmanian public servants are not taking conflict of interest seriously as a driver of misconduct, according to a public statement from the state’s integrity commission.

“Unfortunately, there appears to be a prevailing view in Tasmania that conflict of interest is not a big deal,” Tasmanian Integrity Commission acting CEO Michael Easton said.

“Our investigations and prevention work show this is far from the case — it is one of the most common risk factors for misconduct and is a real concern for the Tasmanian community.”

Easton stated that despite significant work by the commission and some public sector organisations, a quarter of complaints received since July 2014 related to allegations arising from conflicts of interest. And this trend appears to be continuing.

“… the smaller the community, either at state or regional levels, the better the management of conflict of interest must be.”

The commission has identified a persistent pattern of issues where conflicts of interest that were not avoided or properly managed have resulted in a risk of, and in some instances actual, misconduct. These include inappropriate financial advantage, procurement preferences, acceptance of significant gifts from suppliers, favouritism in recruitment, and use of public position to benefit associates or family members.

Significant complaints alleging conflict of interest have been investigated by the commission over the past three years.

While there is some good work happening, says the commission, policy and awareness work across the public sector is slower than it should be and more needs to be done.

“Some public sector organisations do not have a conflict of interest policy, and in some instances where policies do exist, there is a lack of understanding of appropriate strategies for avoiding or managing conflict of interest in an ethical way,” Easton said.

He says a common misconception is that because Tasmania has a small population, conflict of interest is an issue that is either impossible or unnecessary to avoid.

“In our experience, the opposite is true — the smaller the community, either at state or regional levels, the better the management of conflict of interest must be,” he explained.

“Conflict of interest has the potential to undermine public trust in state and local government decision-making and services. The commission will continue to work in collaboration with public sector leaders to further develop and maintain the highest standards of integrity.”

The commission has worked with both the state public sector and local councils to develop extensive support material for dealing with conflict of interest, from template policies and procedures, to workplace resources, training modules and in-house assistance.

“Our resources, advice and consultancy assistance are available to all public sector organisations in Tasmania. We have seen some constructive use of our services in government departments, state authorities and businesses, and in various councils. State service agencies, for example, are working together to streamline their policies to make them easier to understand and use, including the use of common terminology and definitions,” Easton said.

This isn’t the first time the agency has had to warn the Tasmanian State Service to pick up its game. Last year it found “a fundamental misunderstanding” and “concerning complacency” on the issue of gifts and benefits. The report highlighted similar problems:

“There is a lack of understanding of appropriate standards, and of the risks that arise from accepting such rewards. Particularly at the lower end of the scale, accepting certain benefits is seen as just a ‘way of doing business’. Many State Service agencies appear to be under the impression (or at least give the impression to their staff) that as long as they are declared, most — if not all — gifts are acceptable. Yet at the same time, it appears that only a small percentage of received gifts are being declared.”

Not long before that outgoing commissioner Murray Kellam QC issued a parting shot at the state government for failing to bring Tasmania into line with the rest of the country by criminalising abuse of public office.

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