‘Someone we liked’: public servants voice corruption shock

By David Donaldson

Friday September 23, 2016

What’s it like to discover your colleagues may have been involved in corruption? Senior public servants speak about Victoria’s “wake up call” proving it’s not superior to NSW after all. Departments act to tackle bad behaviour.

Victoria was supposed to be the clean state.

But Victorians’ sense of moral superiority has been dented since the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission set up shop.

Senior public servants spoke of their shock over the revelations in the IBAC hearings into the former Department of Education and Early Childhood Development — regarding people they knew and worked with — at an integrity forum held hosted on Thursday by the Victorian branch of the Institute of Public Administration Australia.

The Operation Ord inquiry found senior officials siphoned off millions in public funds intended for school education for their own personal benefit. The Operation Dunham inquiry, which centred around the department’s failed Ultranet software system, will be finalised by the end of the year.

Corruption allegations reach almost to the very top of the department, involving a then-deputy secretary and an acting secretary, suggesting there is a larger problem than simply ‘a few bad apples’.

Wake up call

The incidents were a “real wake up call” for the Victorian Public Service, said Adam Fennessy, secretary of the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.

“When this first emerged into public discussion there was quite a lot of shock,” Fennessy explained. “There was a view in the Victorian government that, oh we’re not corrupt, New South Wales is corrupt.”

Not only did the investigations implicate several senior public servants, “but some of my colleagues at the time — and I was a very new secretary — had had this person report to them, or had worked with them. So we’re asking ourselves, what is that saying about our own leadership teams?”

There was a strong feeling that this shock had translated into action, however. Many of the speakers noted the importance of the Victorian Secretaries Board’s commitment to pushing for a culture of integrity across the VPS, as well as the significant amount of work the Department of Education and Training is doing to overhaul its integrity systems and culture.

‘Someone we had coffees with’

Former senior public servant, now consultant, Terry Healy said Victoria had become “complacent”, noting that history showed we have short memories.

When he first joined the VPS in the early 1980s corruption in Housing Commission land purchases was a huge story. There was a royal commission, two ministers resigned, a public servant went to prison, and the then-state director of housing also resigned. The year after the publication of the commission’s report the Victorian government changed hands for the first time in 27 years.

This was still seen as an “aberration” from the norm, however.

Healy admitted to also being shocked when the Education corruption claims came to light. His experience is a reminder of just how difficult it can be to know that something is going on.

“Certainly not just to me, but other senior colleagues of my generation, it was a massive wake up call. How could it happen?” Healy said.

“Why the shock? Again it was in part because one of the principals involved — who’s allegedly involved in this — was someone we knew, someone we liked, someone we had regular coffees with, I certainly did. We chatted away. I even considered joining that same department.

“In the words of the immortal TV series, he was one of us. So it came not just as a shock, it hurt.”

A multi-pronged solution

Healy, along with others, pointed to the importance of leadership in fostering a culture that supports integrity.

“The preventive framework of legislation, processes and systems can be subverted if there is the will to do so,” he said. “If you really want to do it, you’ll find a way to do it.”

That will be made easier by an organisational culture “lacking strong ethical values”.

As a last resort, there should also be strong and well-designed protected disclosure processes to allow staff to report wrongdoing, “although it should never get to that.”

Starting a conversation is a practical way to begin the process of engendering a culture of high integrity. Asking staff to complete an online training module is not enough — face-to-face conversations are the best way.

Although we tend to immediately think of corruption and fraud when “integrity” is mentioned, things like maladministration and misconduct are part of it too. Conversations are an effective way to make staff actively consider and compare thoughts on how they would behave in situations potentially involving more shades of grey than say, bribery.

Employees at a regulator who approve licence applications, for example — an area of high integrity risk — could arrange a lunch meeting once a month where they discuss issues coming up in their work and how they have handled them, suggested Nous Group principal Claire Noone.

Noone said she believes departments need to do more to communicate to staff when people have left their job for integrity infringements, rather than allowing people to just slip out. This demonstrates that there are consequences to poor behaviour.

Admitting that this has to be done carefully, Noone encouraged organisations to think creatively. Rather than naming names, departments could tell staff that, for example, three people have been sacked or resigned in the past six months due to integrity problems.

Kate Rattigan, deputy secretary at the Department of Education and Training, revealed that her department has begun using conversations cards to guide discussions between staff about how they would respond to different situations.

Questions centre around things many staff might confront in their day-to-day work: what would you do if a family member applied for job? If a colleague sent around offensive content? If someone wanted help campaigning for office?

Peer support helps too. Adam Fennessy revealed that the recent resignation of the CEO of DELWP portfolio agency Parks Victoria — Fennessy didn’t name Bradley Fauteux despite it being on the public record — and announcement that the board would ask IBAC to investigate, had been “a real challenge”.

“That board has taken a really clear decision and I think the right decision,” he explained. “I’ve had peers ringing me up saying do I want to chat, do I want help. I’ve been calling Parks Victoria and saying the same. So it is really good to invoke that peer support.”

This story originally stated that Fauteux “would be investigated by IBAC”. Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio has stated the board would ask IBAC to investigate. but for legal and operational reasons IBAC cannot confirm whether an investigation is taking place.

About the author
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

The essential resource for effective
public sector professionals