Bad bureaucrats are being recycled, warns corruption body

By David Donaldson

August 14, 2018

Public servants with a dodgy past are being ‘recycled’ between departments thanks to inadequate recruitment checks, warns Victoria’s corruption watchdog.

People being rehired despite questions about their integrity is also a “common feature” of investigations into local government recruitment, says the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC).

This often happens because agencies are not conducting enough checks to find out applicants’ work histories, says IBAC. Common risks to recruitment processes include:

  • Employees accused of serious misconduct are encouraged to resign rather than be dismissed, possibly during an unfinished internal investigation;
  • The applicant fails to disclose a relevant criminal record or personal association that would prevent them from performing the inherent requirements of the job;
  • Relevant information is not shared between employers, leading to the re-employment of people with questionable work histories.

While public sector employment is “mostly well managed”, IBAC and other integrity agencies have seen cases where recruitment was done poorly, said IBAC Commissioner Robert Redlich QC.

“As IBAC’s investigations have shown, the unwitting recruitment of a person with a discipline or criminal history that should preclude them from employment in the public sector can place agencies at heightened risk of fraud and corruption,” says Redlich.

“However, this risk could be mitigated through improved recruitment screening and probity vetting, and better information sharing between public sector agencies.”

Recycling bad bureaucrats is only one of the risks identified in IBAC’s new report into the integrity risks in public sector recruitment. Key risks highlighted in the report, based on cases seen by IBAC and other integrity bodies, include:

  • Inadequate pre-employment screening (such as failing to require applicants to provide information about qualifications, work history, discipline and criminal histories, and conflicts of interest) can place a public sector agency at greater risk of corruption.
  • Recruitment is vulnerable to compromise by nepotism, favouritism and conflicts of interest. Selection processes can be corrupted in the earliest stages of recruitment (such as during the development of position descriptions) and by the failure of panel members to declare or manage conflicts of interest.
  • There may be corruption risks associated with the use of recruitment agencies, ranging from the circumvention of merit-based selection and probity processes, through to more complex fraudulent schemes.
  • Where complaints are made about public sector employees and action is taken, ongoing oversight and follow-up does not always occur, which creates a risk of continued wrongdoing.
  • Conflicts of interest can arise when an employee leaves the public sector and takes up a position in the private sector, directly utilising the knowledge and relationships acquired in the public sector.

To combat some of these problems, IBAC recommends agencies require prospective public sector employees to complete a statutory declaration about their work history, including whether they have ever been the subject of an investigation for a criminal or disciplinary matter.

As privacy concerns often prevent agencies doing background checks themselves, candidates should be asked to sign a waiver to allow their prospective employer to check on their disciplinary history. Agencies should also improve their information sharing and communication, IBAC thinks.

Victorian Public Sector Commissioner Paul Grimes welcomed IBAC’s research report, and said it provided timely insights into how public sector employment practices could be further strengthened.

“IBAC’s report makes valuable observations about the ways that current employment practices can be further strengthened to ensure corruption risks associated with employment are minimised,” he said.

“I recommend every public sector agency head considers it and makes sure their Human Resources functions are across its contents.”

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