Sustaining a responsible and respectful workplace

In this section:

Increasingly, the private and not-for-profit sectors are providing community services that were traditionally delivered by the public sector.1 As a result, sustaining transparency and accountability is becoming ever more complex.

The accountability framework is embedded in the public sector through forging strong links between expected ideals and formal behaviour.2 Employee behaviour can impact on the level of public trust so it is important that public sector staff are aware of their responsibilities and act in accordance with the community's expectations.

Overall, the public sector continues to be effective in promoting and sustaining integrity. Employee awareness of what constitutes ethical behaviour remains high, with disciplinary action representing occasional acts of poor judgment by a few employees, rather than systemic issues within the sector.

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The state of integrity and accountability

The United Nations has identified an ongoing issue for government is the importance of demonstrating the effectiveness of public administration integrity and accountability. Increasing access to information about government programs, activities and performance creates and reinforces the community 'watchdog' function.3

Transparency International's 'Corruption perceptions index' measures the perceived levels of public sector corruption in 177 countries. In 2013, the Australian public sector was ranked ninth least likely to be perceived as corrupt, which was better than countries such as Canada, United Kingdom, Japan and Germany.4

Supporting this result is the continued strength of the WA public sector in this area, with 84 per cent of respondents to the Public Sector Commission's 2014 Employee perception survey (EPS) reporting their entity actively encourages ethical behaviour by all employees. Other results for the WA public sector sample show:

  • confidential information is only disclosed to appropriate people (79 per cent), with the School Curriculum and Standards Authority (SCSA) most likely to agree (89 per cent)
  • purchasing decisions are not influenced by gifts or incentives (76 per cent), with employees from the Department of Education regional offices of Wheatbelt and Goldfields most likely to agree (87 per cent and 85 per cent respectively)
  • conflicts of interest are identified and managed effectively (61 per cent, with an additional 25 per cent of respondents providing neutral responses), with SCSA again reporting highest agreement (78 per cent).

In 2013, research into community perceptions of corruption in the public sector was undertaken by the Australian National University. Based on his research, Professor Adam Graycar, Director Transnational Research Institute on Corruption, indicated to the Commission earlier this year that the WA community has significantly more confidence in the integrity of its state government than other Australian jurisdictions.5

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Building awareness of ethical principles

Over the past year, there has been an increase in community scrutiny of the private use of public resources and the effective management of the receipt of gifts, benefits and hospitality. More recently, an emerging issue has been the management of conflicts of interest around government sponsorships. While most employees report their co-workers behave ethically, reinforcing expectations of appropriate behaviour and reviewing the decision making process continues to be important.

The first step to embedding integrity and accountability in the workplace is to raise awareness of ethical codes. Similar to last year's results, 82 per cent of 2014 EPS respondents reported they are familiar with the Code of Ethics and 91 per cent with their employer's code of conduct. The majority (81 per cent) also indicated they are aware of procedures in their entity for the offer and acceptance of gifts. While employee awareness of policies and procedures around conflicts of interest appeared lower at 68 per cent, a further 16 per cent of EPS respondents knew where to find these policies and procedures if needed.

These findings indicate most public sector employees know where to access information about the behaviour expected of them. However, engaging employees in the development and review of their entity's code of conduct may help them to better integrate these standards into the way they make decisions and respond to ethical issues as they arise. The role that ethical codes play in shaping workplace culture is changing over time. The focus is shifting from documenting a comprehensive set of rules enforcing conduct to applying a values based code that inspires appropriate performance by employees and senior leaders.6

Leading by example

Role modelling of ethical behaviour by managers assists in raising staff awareness and supports a culture of accountability. Most 2014 EPS respondents indicated their immediate supervisor demonstrates honesty and integrity (85 per cent) and their senior managers lead by example in ethical behaviour (71 per cent). These results are similar to last year and indicate the sector's senior leadership is effective in promoting integrity and accountability and positively influencing employee behaviour.

Where comparison data was available, perceptions of ethical leadership were similar to, or better than, other jurisdictions, as shown in Figure 2.1.

Figure 2.1 Employee perceptions of ethical leadership (percentage) across jurisdictions, 2011 to 2014

Figure 2.1 Employee perceptions of ethical leadership (percentage) across jurisdictions, 2011 to 2014

WA = 71, Vic = 75 (highest), NSW = 70, APS = 68, NT = 58, Qld = 49 (lowest)

Leaders play a significant role in building awareness of ethical principles. However, reinforcing integrity and accountability in the behaviour of all employees continues to be important in response to increasing scrutiny of public sector performance.7

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Supporting ethical behaviour

With increasing efficiency demands on the public sector, the pressure is building for high performance in the face of multifaceted ethical issues.8 Ethical dilemmas are surfacing more frequently in response to the increasingly complex operating environment.9 As a result, codes of conduct need to be regularly reviewed to describe appropriate behaviour in changing environments. In a new question in the Commission's Public sector entity survey (PSES) this year, most public sector entities (92 per cent) reported their code of conduct has been reviewed within the last three years.

Government boards and committees operate in the context of unique integrity risks, as they oversight the management of entities or are responsible for decision making which may have a significant political or social impact. To support government boards and committees, the Commission has recently published Board essentials. This outlines board member responsibilities in the stewardship of major public assets and services. Further information is available in Chapter 4.

Integrity in recruitment

Embedding integrity starts with the recruitment and induction of employees into the public sector. The appointment of people is considered a high risk area for conflicts of interest. More than a matter of trust: An examination of integrity checking controls in recruitment and employee induction processes considered recruitment and induction practices for positions that carry a higher integrity risk. Some room for improvement was identified in the 2013 report, such as the need for assessment of integrity at key points in the recruitment and selection process.

This year, the Commission developed a 'Recruiting for integrity' workshop that has commenced delivery across the public sector. The workshop provides practical guidance on the selection panel's role in managing ethical dilemmas in recruitment.

Accountable and ethical decision making

Ensuring compliance is not the only important factor in building an ethical culture. The implementation of programs to inform employees on how to align their behaviour with codes of conduct and engage in ethical decision making is just as important.10

To achieve this, the 'Accountable and ethical decision making' (AEDM) program presents ethical dilemmas as case studies to promote internal discussion and communicate expectations of conduct. This year's PSES indicates that, in the last five years, 87 per cent of corporate executive members and 63 per cent of public sector employees have participated in this program. This result is similar to the previous year.

The Commission revised and updated the AEDM program in December 2013 and also developed a refresher session. Targeted at employees who have completed the AEDM program several years ago, the refresher session provides an avenue for employers to revisit key messages and discuss any changes in policies and procedures with employees.

AEDM session with 'The First Steps' banner: Am I doing the right thing? How would others judge my actions? How could my actions impact on others? Should I discuss this with someone else?

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Building confidence in reporting

Generally, public sector employees should report any information or incidents they believe are unethical where management is unaware or management is knowingly supportive of the conduct. Overall, 20 per cent of EPS respondents reported observing unethical behaviour during the past year (compared to 25 per cent the previous year).

Fifty-five per cent of EPS respondents who witnessed misconduct in the past year indicated they reported the behaviour at least some of the time (compared to 59 per cent in 2013). Those who did not report indicated this was because they do not think action will be taken, do not want to upset workplace relationships, and think it may affect their career.

Satisfying employees and the community that action has been taken to appropriately address any concerns, while balancing the privacy of those who have reports made against them and those who make reports, is an ongoing challenge for the public sector. The Commonwealth Government has recently released a discussion paper to seek the views of its staff and the public about the extent to which the outcome of a misconduct report should be disclosed.11 The proposed principles in the discussion paper are:

  • Entities should provide enough information to assure a reasonable person that the matter has been dealt with properly.
  • Entities should provide enough information to assure employees and the public that complaints are dealt with fairly and effectively.
  • Generally, the more harm done to the witness and the entity as a consequence of the misconduct, the more information should be provided.
  • Before any disclosure is made, the views of the employee who is the subject of the report should be sought and taken into consideration.

In the 2014 PSES, entities reported employing a range of strategies to encourage misconduct reporting, similar to previous years. Table 2.1 shows the most common strategies were outlining a process to report unethical behaviour and publishing a commitment to reporting this behaviour.

Anonymity is important to some in reporting unethical behaviour. Strategies such as a confidential phone or email service can help build confidence in reporting. While only one third of larger entities reported having an anonymous service in place this year, 79 per cent of those with over 1000 FTE have a service available, covering over 85 per cent of the public sector workforce. Other entities are encouraged to consider how anonymous reporting could be enabled as appropriate, given the size of their workforce and the available resources.

Table 2.1 Strategies to encourage employee reporting of unethical behaviour, 2013/14

 

Entities (%)

The way to report unethical behaviour is published in the entity's code of conduct or other policy

100

The chief executive has publicised a commitment to the reporting of unethical behaviour in the entity's code of conduct or other policy

99

The contact names for reporting unethical behaviour are accessible to employees

97

The entity's code of conduct or other policy contains a statement that victimisation of those reporting unethical behaviour will not be tolerated

93

The entity communicates to employees how to report unethical behaviour

82

Managers receive training in how to handle reports of unethical behaviour

82

A confidential phone or email service has been set up to encourage the reporting of unethical behaviour

33

Note: These strategies occurred either entity-wide or in some parts of the entities. Only larger entities were asked these questions this year.
Source: PSES

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Management of unethical behaviour

From time to time, undesirable workplace behaviour may impact on public sector operations. Given the complexity of issues associated with this behaviour, there may be uncertainty as to which is the most appropriate pathway for managing behavioural issues. To assist entities in identifying and understanding the pathways, the Commission has released Managing workplace behaviour: A guide for agencies. This is supported by the Commission's delivery of 'Workplace behaviour: Is it discipline?' training sessions across the sector.

Disciplinary processes

Monitoring ethical breaches enables programs to be targeted to improve employee behaviour as necessary. The Commission works closely with entities to improve the sector's ability to manage any breaches. This includes the provision of advice and assistance on disciplinary processes.

The 2014 PSES indicated 49 per cent of entities completed disciplinary processes over the year. Where information was available, most of these entities (80 per cent) completed them within six months on average. Less than half (48 per cent) of completed processes found breaches, with close to half of these breaches under the Public Sector Management Act 1994 (external website).

For those processes around ethical codes specifically, there was a higher number of breaches reported this year (610), compared to the previous year (479). This was primarily due to a more than two-fold increase in processes undertaken within the Department of Education this year, which the department advised the Commission was in response to increased staff awareness of what constitutes misconduct and increased reporting of unethical behaviour.

However, extrapolating to the broader workforce, the number of breaches continues to represent a very low level of misconduct in the public sector, averaging four breaches of ethical codes for every 1000 employees, similar to last year. These results are considered to represent occasional acts of poor judgment by a few employees, rather than systemic corruption within the public sector.

Table 2.2 shows discipline processes for falsification of information/records, workplace theft and improper use of public resources were reported as most likely to find breaches. However, the highest number of reported breaches was in the area of workplace behaviour (such as disrespect and inappropriate language). These results confirm the observations of those EPS respondents who reported witnessing unethical behaviour over the last 12 months. Inappropriate personal behaviour, improper use of email and discrimination/ harassment were most often reported by employees as witnessed in the workplace.

Table 2.2 Types of breaches of ethical codes, 2013/14

 

Number of completed processes

% of total where breach of discipline found

 

Total

Breach of discipline found

Falsification of information or records

42

27

64

Workplace theft

38

23

61

Improper use of public resources (e.g. vehicles)

41

24

59

Improper use of internet or email

30

17

57

Improper use of internet or email

30

17

57

Failure to manage conflicts of interest

38

20

53

Inappropriate behaviour of employees during working hours

281

129

46

Inappropriate access of confidential information

26

12

46

Unauthorised disclosure of information

40

18

45

Fraudulent or corrupt behaviour

47

18

38

Inappropriate behaviour of employees outside working hours

32

12

38

Misuse of drugs or alcohol

13

4

31

Bullying

34

7

21

Inappropriate acceptance of gifts or benefits

1

0

0

Other elements (e.g. failure to follow proper process/policy/instruction, assault, neglect of duty)

234

96

41

TOTAL

1290(a)

610(b)

47

Note: A completed process can be counted against more than one type of breach.

(a) Includes 393 processes from the Department of Education where the department reported type of process could not be identified.

(b) Includes 203 processes from the Department of Education where the department reported type of breach found could not be identified. The department noted however that the majority were attributed to the area of 'inappropriate behaviour'.

Source: PSES

Table 2.3 shows the most common outcomes of breaches of ethical codes were written warnings (21 per cent of all outcomes) and reprimands (12 per cent). This was the same as the previous year.

Table 2.3 Outcomes of breaches of ethical codes, 2013/14

 

Number of outcomes

Formal written warning 143
Reprimand 79
Counselling/dispute resolution 53
Termination of employment 38
No sanction due to cessation of employee 35
Improvement notice 20
No sanction imposed for other reasons 19
Learning and development 15
Performance management 14
Deductions from salary by way of a fine 14
Further employment contract not offered 7
Reduction in classification 5
Reassignment of duties 4
Reduction in salary 3
Employee transferred 2
Other outcomes (e.g. suspension, caution) 12

TOTAL

671(a)

Note: A completed process can be counted against more than one type of outcome.

(a) Includes 208 outcomes where entities reported the type of outcome could not be identified. Of these, 203 were from the Department of Education.

Source: PSES

Other issues

The Commission provides an advisory service to public authorities, their employees and members of the community. This service offers advice on a range of matters such as ethical codes, public sector standards and public interest disclosure.

This year, more than 2700 matters were responded to by this service. Telephone calls regarding human resource management issues, and in particular the Employment standard, were most frequent, followed by conduct, ethics and integrity matters, and principles of public administration and management.

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Public interest disclosure

The role of a discloser is essentially that of an informant, serving a crucial role in detecting and reporting unethical behaviour. There is often a reluctance by employees to report or to do so in a timely fashion. Some of this may be due to the complexity of whistleblowing legislation or limitations in organisational systems.12 However, similar to last year, 69 per cent of EPS respondents who knew about public interest disclosure (PID) processes indicated they would consider making a disclosure for any improper conduct in their workplace.

Disclosures

This year, a total of 52 disclosures were reported as received by public authorities13 (compared to 51 in the previous year). Issues raised through the PID process continue to represent a very small proportion of all misconduct matters.

Of the received disclosures, 22 were assessed by public authorities as appropriate. The remainder were deemed inappropriate for reasons such as not meeting the definition of public interest information or not being made to a proper authority. As in previous years, most of the appropriate disclosures related to improper conduct (16), followed by matters covered by the Ombudsman (four) and substantial irregular or unauthorised use of public resources (two).

Five disclosures were referred to another body for investigation and three were not investigated as provided for under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2003 (external website).

PID officers

This year, most public authorities (87 per cent) reported designating at least one occupant of a specified position to receive disclosures. The contact details of more than 250 PID officers are published in the Commission's PID officer contact directory to assist people who are considering making a disclosure.

Public authority strategies

Sixty-three per cent of public authorities reported publishing internal procedures for disclosures, compared to 65 per cent last year. Awareness raising strategies most commonly used by larger public sector entities were publishing the names of PID officers, ensuring PID officers attend the Commission's training, and publishing information regarding the Commission's advisory service.

Employee awareness

Sixty-three per cent of 2014 EPS respondents were aware of how to make a disclosure or knew where to find out, similar to last year's result (64 per cent). Over the year ahead the Commission will partner with other PID oversight agencies from across Australia and Queensland's Griffith University, in a research project to enable the public sector to benchmark against practice in other states and countries.

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Key chapter findings

Most employees are aware of policies and procedures relating to expected standards of ethical behaviour. Employees also report that managers lead by example in demonstrating integrity and accountability.

The evolution of a more complex operating environment is presenting new ethical challenges for the public sector. In response to these challenges, entities are refreshing AEDM training and embedding integrity checks in recruitment and induction processes. Most entities have also reviewed their code of conduct in the last three years.

Breaches of discipline continue to indicate a low level of misconduct, with an average of four breaches for every 1000 employees, similar to last year. This is considered to represent occasional acts of poor judgment. Most breaches relate to workplace behaviour (such as disrespect and inappropriate language).

The public sector continues to monitor and respond to integrity and accountability matters to ensure its policies, processes and practices reflect the changing nature of the operating climate.

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1 WA Information Commissioner 2014, 'Achieving transparency with blurred government boundaries', Australian Institute of Administrative Law, 2014 National Administrative Law Conference, Perth WA, 25 July 2014

2 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 2000, Trust in government: Ethics measures in OECD countries, Governance, p. 11

3 United Nations 2005, Integrity, transparency and accountability in public administration: Recent trends, regional and international developments and emerging issues, p. 8

4 This draws on data from independent institutions, which specialise in governance and business climate analysis, over the past 24 months. Transparency International reviews the methodology of each data collection to ensure they meet quality standards. For further information, see the Transparency International webpage at: http://www.transparency.org/cpi2013/in_detail

5 Quote from Professor Adam Graycar in June 2014, author of 'Awareness of corruption in the community and public service: A Victorian study', Australian Journal of Public Administration, vol. 73, no. 2

6 LRN 2006, The impact of codes of conduct on corporate culture: Measuring the immeasurable, p. 2

7 Center for Creative Leadership 2004, Leadership development: Past, present, and future, p. 31

8 International Journal of Training and Development 2009, Organizational ethics education and training: A review of best practices and their application, p. 78

9 Queensland University of Technology 2004, Public sector managers and ethical dilemmas, p. 2

10 Ethics Resource Center 2006, Ethical culture building: A modern business imperative, p. 7

11 Australian Public Service Commission 2014, Privacy and transparency: Disclosing outcomes of misconduct complaints – A discussion paper

12 Griffith University 2009, Whistling while they work: Towards best practice whistleblowing programs in public sector organisations, p. 3

13 Includes public universities, local government authorities, government boards and committees and other public authorities, such as government trading enterprises.

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Page last updated 20 November 2014