Integrity opportunities and challenges

In this section:

Culture, governance, capability and decision-making frameworks are the necessary pre-conditions for ethical decision making and more generally, ethical public authorities. While no set of arrangements will absolutely guarantee ethical behaviour, authorities can implement critical strategies, already discussed in this report, to alleviate risks. 

Understanding the current and future integrity state

In order to build a high-integrity environment, senior leaders must evaluate current organisational settings. For example, employee and client perception surveys are a common way to evaluate cultural and engagement settings, while responding each year to the Commission’s survey program provides a useful self-assessment of governance arrangements. Importantly, self-assessment and evaluation should be practiced continuously to be effective. Once the current situation is understood, leaders can take the opportunity to focus on where, and how, improvements can be made.

Authorities with ethical and integrity issues, which may include poor decision making and unethical behaviour, are often characterised by a deficiency in one or more of the pre-conditions. That is, integrity relies on the elements of culture, governance, capability and decision-making frameworks to be balanced and working harmoniously. It is imperative that leaders have a thorough understanding of how these components inter-relate. While senior leaders are responsible for ensuring the pre-conditions are in place, all public officers and other external stakeholders have a role to play in ensuring a high-integrity culture.

High-integrity leadership

While an ethics and compliance governance framework establishes the intent to operate with integrity, visible and engaged leadership demonstrates the organisational commitment to do so (Dionisio, 2017). High-integrity leadership where senior leaders act, and are seen to be acting, with integrity positively influences culture, engagement and decision making. However, senior public servants in other Australian jurisdictions have suggested that alertness and conscious action around integrity is something that leaders need to give more thought and consideration to (IBAC, 2017).

New Zealand research also shows that ethical leadership is increasingly thought of as effective leadership. Many studies show leaders who are seen as having high levels of integrity are also perceived as better at their jobs. But now there is a much better understanding that the way in which things get done–not only a leaders’ ability to be task-orientated–also matters (IBAC, 2016).

Authorities where organisational values are clearly stated and modelled by leaders as part of a strong value proposition have a better chance of navigating challenging circumstances. Clear channels for open communication within the leadership team and between leaders, managers and employees also assists in building a high-integrity culture and navigating change.

‘The main challenge of employer branding in the public sector is to shape public administration’s image as a high performance service provider and an attractive, trustworthy and credible employer. The public sector can strengthen its brand by emphasising a focus on high quality, customer orientation and public value.’

Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, 2016, Engaging Public Employees for a High-Performing Civil Service.

Organisational culture vs sector-wide culture

There is no question the core principles of public service do, and should, underpin organisational and sector-wide cultures. However there is a growing imperative for sector-wide cultures to be more responsive to changes in the economic and social environment in which the sectors operate. Increasingly the sectors are being called upon to shift from being risk averse to risk intelligent, inflexible to agile, independent to interdependent and customer-service-driven to customer-centric. In order to achieve broader cultural changes, authorities will need to have organisational cultures, with engaged employees, functioning to a high standard.

Promoting integrity

Integrity is often assumed to be innate in individuals and within organisations. Senior public servants in other Australian jurisdictions have warned that the public sector has relied too heavily on a set of values it was perceived all public officers shared, and those values did not require much articulation. However, this mind set may lead to a ‘loss of alertness’ to the possibility–and even probability–of corruption in the public sector (IBAC, 2017). Often, integrity has to be ‘taught and bought’ and leaders need to keep employees and other key stakeholders engaged with the integrity agenda. 

Compliance requirements alone are insufficient to encourage ethical behaviour. New Zealand research suggests organisations that completely focus on compliance alone do not tend to have ethical cultures or have ethics embedded within organisational systems. There needs to be the appropriate programs to translate values into action (IBAC, 2016). Codes of conduct and ethics training are key programs used in public authorities to support this translation. Employees need to be reminded regularly about their ethical obligations and the benefits of a high-integrity culture. Opportune times include at induction, when a governance policy or process is updated or when a change is about to take place. Promoting integrity values is never more important that during a period of significant change.

In promoting integrity among external stakeholders, it is important to remind them of the authority’s position on integrity and ethical conduct. Authorities report advising contractors, clients and suppliers about how to report unethical behaviour in a variety of ways including: at induction; within contracts, tenders and service agreements; statements on the public website; and by word of mouth. External stakeholders act as an additional level of oversight around integrity issues.

Open engagement with integrity and oversight bodies

Integrity and oversight bodies, such as the Commission, play a vital role in public administration. Not only do they set the rules through legislation and compliance, but they are also inherently prevention agents. However, public authorities are best placed to have, and must retain, primary responsibility for ensuring their own integrity and misconduct resistance. 

The work of integrity and oversight bodies serve to highlight integrity risks areas, and provide useful lessons and practical tools on how to reduce them. The challenge for authorities is to be open to scrutiny by bodies such as Parliamentary committees, integrity commissioners and the media, and respond appropriately and effectively.

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Page last updated 19 October 2017