Misconduct register for SA public servants

By David Donaldson

May 25, 2017

Work is underway to create a central misconduct register for the South Australian public sector to ensure agencies are aware of blemishes on an applicant’s employment history during the recruitment process.

SA commissioner for public sector employment Erma Ranieri has been undertaking consultations over the past year to start the process of setting up a repository on public officers who have been dismissed from public employment.

It will also contain information on employees who have resigned in the midst of a misconduct investigation, a common phenomenon.

“If it’s historical and not related to the work they do, you have to be fair. I’ve thought long and hard about that.”

At present, in the absence of a central database, recruiters rely on applicants disclosing previous infractions themselves, but it is difficult to cross-check between agencies.

There are several publicly known examples of people being hired by government agencies despite apparently being the subject of pending criminal charges or disciplinary proceedings.

A senior public servant who was sacked by SA Health for accessing pornography at work was hired by the Department of Communities and Social Inclusion after it missed his disciplinary record, reports The Advertiser. A senior manager at TAFE SA stole $154,000 after being hired despite having previous fraud-related convictions. And it recently emerged an IT worker was employed by SA Water despite facing federal charges relating to accessing child exploitation material.

Independent commissioner against corruption Bruce Lander QC has been calling for such a mechanism for several years. In the commission’s most recent annual report, he argued that “there is a risk that a public officer might unknowingly be employed by a public authority even after having been dismissed by another public authority because of serious misconduct.

“Similarly, a public officer might resign in the midst of a misconduct investigation in an effort to prevent findings of misconduct from ultimately being made. Again, a public authority might unknowingly employ a person who was the subject of investigation for serious misconduct but who had resigned prior to findings being made.”

Working out the implementation details

The Office for the Public Sector is currently liaising with stakeholders, including agencies and unions, to work out how best to implement such a centralised system, Ranieri told The Mandarin.

The key is to increase the information available to recruiters to help them ask relevant questions and make the right decisions — not necessarily that anyone is automatically barred. She is working with a privacy committee to determine what questions are appropriate to ask, and how that information is shared.

“You’ve got to be fair”, she says. “If it’s historical and not related to the work they do, you have to be fair. I’ve thought long and hard about that.”

Ranieri is also speaking to HR managers about finding the most practical way of capturing the data. The likely answer is adding in an extra step when recording a termination, to make the reasons for termination clear. Work is also being done to figure out how to record information about someone resigning during an investigation.

It’s not just about having the data available — part of the challenge is ensuring recruiters are well-trained draw out integrity-related information. Recruitment is the responsibility of each agency head, and is usually devolved to lower levels to ensure relevant managers are able to choose those most suited to the specific role. “That’s a good thing”, she says, but because this responsibility falls on a lot of people across the sector at different times, interviewers are not always as well-trained as they could be.

She has not put a timeframe on the establishment of a misconduct register, arguing stakeholders need a chance to understand the idea and provide input.

A review of pre-employment declarations was conducted after Ranieri started as commissioner in mid-2014, which produced a template providing a consistent approach. It’s important agencies are using that tool, she said.

Apart from making it easier to spot bad apples, a misconduct register would provide agencies with greater certainty about all recruits, Lander wrote in the 2014-15 ICAC annual report.

“In the same way that a police clearance certificate provides some level of confidence in the integrity of a prospective employee, so also would a check to ensure that the individual had not engaged in misconduct of the sort that led to his or her dismissal or who resigned prior the conclusion of a misconduct investigation.

“Secondly, it would be a way of verifying the truthfulness of any disclosures made by the prospective employee, a matter which in itself is an indication of the integrity of that individual.”

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