'Why should I get a gift for doing my job?'

By David Donaldson

May 23, 2017

Top Victorian public servant Terry Garwood describes his ‘integrity moment’ accepting a gift he later decided to return. Talk to your colleagues about what integrity means to them, he urges — you’ll be surprised by the diversity of answers.

Most public servants will face an ‘integrity moment’ at some point in their career, but it’s how they respond that matters.

For Terry Garwood, one of Victoria’s top mandarins, his moment was many years ago — “before we had such detailed gifts and hospitality guidelines” — while working for the Department of Human Services in Northern Victoria.

One day a board member of Wangaratta Base Hospital, one of the stakeholders he worked with, offered him a gift of Christian Dior aftershave.

“The second I took it was the second I had a problem — but I did take it,” the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning deputy secretary told last week’s IPAA Victoria regional conference.

“And you know what? … It kept looking at me for a week and I just felt uncomfortable. To cut a long story short, I ended up a few days later giving that Dune aftershave back.”

Although “there was nothing nefarious or bad or wrong” behind the gift, and was rather an attempt to thank Garwood for doing a good job, the taking the present and then giving it back was embarrassing, he explained.

“So he then thought he’d done this massively wrong thing and he felt really bad. The embarrassment, all that could have been avoided if I had politely declined the gift in the first place.

“The point about that is — why should I get a gift for doing my job? That was what I felt, what I couldn’t articulate particularly well in the absence of any guidelines,” said Garwood.

“That’s just one of those integrity moments that I expect we’ll all come across in some way, shape or form. It still stays with me. You know, it was given to me in a private office, no one saw it, no one else saw me give it back, it would have been done and dusted, wouldn’t have been an issue. But I couldn’t, and I made the mistake of accepting it for doing my job.”

Integrity in regional communities

The integrity challenges of government operations in regional areas was one of the main focal points of the conference, held in Geelong.

Speakers noted the difficulties of being a public servant in the “fish bowl” life of a country town, where it’s not possible to live the more anonymised life enjoyed by city bureaucrats, who can leave their work identity at work. This can mean you see contractors at the supermarket, or your kids play netball with the kids of someone impacted by a decision.

There’s often also a sense of being not just geographically but culturally distant from the centre of power, which can lead to a ‘that’s not how we do things here’ mentality — which can be seen optimistically as people adapting to different settings, or not so charitably as staff not implementing policy as intended, and even opening space for integrity infringements.

The Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning has more than 100 sites around the state, and experiences ongoing problems, Garwood explained. Things like staff borrowing equipment for personal use, such as taking home digging equipment to dig new dams, or chainsaws for cutting up firewood.

Ensuring there is a culture of integrity can help nip some of these behaviours in the bud, he believes.

“We had a case where a staff member put new tyres on the work four wheel drive and put the old tyres on their own four wheel drive. A few years ago there was a staff member who would borrow departmental heavy machinery and used the equipment to run a business on the side as a dozer operator — in work time.

“These are all cases of people who had their integrity moment, but they made the wrong choice. And you have to wonder if this behaviour was or wasn’t observed by other people over a long period of time. I don’t know. However, let me hazard a guess that it probably was, and it wasn’t acted on. So perhaps an integrity culture would have picked it up sooner.”

Being open and clear about expectations is important — but don’t just tell people what’s expected, discuss with them their understanding of how they would react in different situations. Ask people what an integrity culture is to them, Garwood said. “You’ll heat all sorts of answers.”

The job is never done — it’s something that needs constant work. And for those worried about red tape holding up productivity, a culture of integrity actually seems to improve output, he thinks.

“I have to say with the work that we’re doing in my department, in DELWP, we’re seeing that strengthening and talking about — importantly, talking about, talking about, talking about — an integrity culture and building the right culture, can actually help support, and I believe improve, organisational performance.”

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