Don't assume integrity is innate, Fran Thorn reminds public servants

By David Donaldson

August 1, 2017

Public servants must be alert to the possibility their colleagues are corrupt, says former departmental secretary Fran Thorn.

It’s up to leaders to have a clear articulation of what integrity is and be explicit about expecting it is part of the culture, she told an Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission podcast.

“And don’t assume — as I think too many of us did — that it was an innate value of being a public servant,” said the former Victorian Department of Health boss, now national public sector lead at Deloitte.

“One of the issues, I think, that the public service faces is that it has relied upon a set of values which many leaders in the public service have felt we all shared.

“I was one of those who felt we all shared those values and that they didn’t need much articulation, that they were part of what it meant to be a public servant. So, that would seem to me to be part of the building of a culture, which is to take those values and to be very explicit about them and what they mean around integrity as part of your culture,” she added.

“We probably all became, I think, a little bit — you could say complacent. I’m not sure that complacent is the right word, but lost a sense of alertness to the possibility of corruption in the public sector.”

Thorn’s comments follow the recent IBAC hearings into alleged corruption involving South West TAFE, Bendigo Kangan TAFE and V/Line. The inquiry demonstrated the public sector’s need to tighten up processes, noted IBAC Commissioner Stephen O’Bryan in the agency’s newsletter.

“These examinations, like previous IBAC investigations, have again highlighted the corruption vulnerabilities associated with employment and procurement practices. There is a clear need for all public sector agencies to have the appropriate policies, systems and practices in place to address these risks,” he argues.

Integrity should be part of business as usual

Public servants need to be aware of the opportunities for breaches of integrity in their organisation and build both a culture and formal structure that minimises the chances of this happening, says Thorn.

“In the same way as you build good systems to ensure the organisation is good at advising the minister and the government and creating policy,” public servants need to make sure they have in place “HR systems that are around building strength and diversity and good practice,” she argues.

Giving staff charged with monitoring for integrity risks access to leaders is also very important.

“Sometimes they behave in a way that makes you think … senior leaders are omniscient, but they’re not. I don’t think I’m revealing any great secrets here when I say that, but they need to be told. They will not see everything that’s happening in an organisation,” says Thorn.

“I can say, without exception, that all my former colleagues would want to believe that their staff feel free to come and speak to them on issues of integrity and to give them advice on ways in which, through their behaviours and actions, they can, in fact, be strengthening the otherwise more formal processes you might have in the organisation.”

From little indiscretions, big indiscretions grow

Although it may be uncomfortable to think about, public servants should be attuned to the possibility their colleagues might not be doing things by the book. Referring to the high profile integrity failures of recent years, she said:

“There was a failure to be alert and aware of the fact that corruption was not only possible, it was probable. This is fairly shocking for any of us to have to think about, that we do work, very likely, with colleagues who may seek to behave in ways that are corrupt. Most of us don’t really want to think about that because it’s saying something about one’s colleagues. That’s hard at a personal and professional level.”

While not every incident is of equal gravity, they still need to be addressed.

“Not all corruption starts as what we would see as an overtly corrupt act. It’s often a set of small behaviours that seem okay. Nobody really pays much attention, and they start to become systematised in a way that really multiplies their effect and you see people building a culture which starts to be one that allows very, very serious corruption to exist,” she says.

Stamping out bad behaviour at the very beginning can only happen if there’s an open culture that supports discussion and questions.

“Create a culture where it’s okay to raise issues, even if those issues turn out to be misunderstandings or overblown, or incorrect even,” Thorn argues.

“It is okay to raise it. It is better to raise it than not to raise it. People should be acknowledged and respected for raising issues, because that’s what you want.

“You want an environment where people feel safe to say ‘I don’t think that’s right’, and to at least have a conversation about it. Make it part of your business.”

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