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Ethics and corruption



By Mike Jones, Public Service and Merit Protection Commission, Australia
(This Case Study reflects the situation in December 1995)

A. The Public Service Environment

B. New Initiatives

C. The Ethics Infrastructure

D. The Future



A. The Public Service Environment

In recent years governments around the world have been faced with a number of common concerns: the most pressing of these have been pressure on public expenditure, increasing expectations from citizens of the quality of government services and greater transparency of government decision making.

Most countries have responded by adopting a program of public sector reform designed to improve public sector performance. In Australia the reforms have generally focused on giving better value for money, better meeting the needs of clients and focusing on results. We have sought to make the public sector more efficient and cost-effective, to improve the quality of services that are delivered to the public and to enhance accountability.

We have recognised that if the public sector can respond more flexibly and strategically to change then, service delivery can be improved. Good governance is central to the wider agenda of improved national economic performance.

But good public service means more than the efficient and cost-effective delivery of services.

What differentiates public service?

There are those who downplay the difference between public and private service, believing that delivering an entitlement to an Australian citizen is no different from selling a hamburger to a customer. In their view working in the public sector is like any other service job. There is concern in Australia that we are becoming less clear about what it means to be a servant of the public and less confident about the distinctive character of public service. There is concern that the managerial reform of Australian public administration, and the increases in productivity which have accompanied them, are little appreciated and too often disparaged in the community. There is also concern that the managerial rhetoric which has accompanied these reforms has had the effect of down playing the unique nature of public service.

There is a growing mood that public policy can be delivered through the market, and a view that many programs and services can be delivered through the private or non-government sector. In this environment the proposition is gaining currency that governments set the public purpose but that the services which reflect that purpose can be provided by either the public, private or voluntary sector competing on the basis of cost.

But a debate focused exclusively on industrial or economic considerations fails to address the most important question: namely, whether and to what extent a public service fulfils a community purpose and plays a role in democratic society, which is qualitatively different from that of the private sector.

There is concern that the notion of market testing our performance, of ensuring that there is contestability in service delivery, is too often based upon comparative assessments which fail to distinguish the responsibilities of public service. Concerns that go to the heart of how we think about the performance of the public service.

The Australian public believe there is a difference between public and private provision of services. A survey undertaken by the Australian Economic Planning Advisory Commission in 1994 indicated that while Australians may not fully appreciate the obligations of public service they are "far from indifferent about the vehicle or instrument for delivery of (government) expenditures". The survey revealed "strong preference in the community for public provision of all the services nominated" from garbage collection (75% favouring public provision) to police (70%), from schools (65%) to hospitals (67%).

However, the APS and its performance is not without its critics. The performance of the APS is scrutinised and criticised by the media and by members of the community through representations to their elected representatives. And the APS does not always receive a good ‘report card’ from the Auditor-General, the Ombudsman and the Parliamentary Committees. There is a growing set of arrangements for scrutinising the performance of the APS and, for that matter, the performance of individual public servants. And no longer are public servants anonymous bureaucrats.

The performance of the Australian Public Service (APS), as with any organisation, must be assessed fundamentally by the quality and cost of the services it delivers and the manner in which it goes about delivering services. The APS is a service industry and its administration must be directed to serving clients’ needs efficiently and effectively, but also equitably and ethically and the public service must be accountable for its performance.

The APS has embraced an environment of considerable change over the last decade and a half. It has undergone significant reform to meet the increasing expectations that the Government, the Parliament and the community have of its performance. Through these reforms the APS has committed itself to achieving better standards of service for its clients, ensuring public money is spent efficiently and effectively and being held accountable for the results it achieves.

But in pursuing these objectives, the APS has retained its focus on its central purpose: serving the public good, satisfying the public interest, and delivering to the community their entitlements in a manner which reflects the public purpose. This means preserving the essential values of public administration - such as ethical behaviour, impartiality, equity and merit - while simultaneously striving for best practice in service delivery.

Increasingly, in delivering quality service, the APS is focusing on a more rigorous identification of clients and a better understanding of what they want, need and expect. Such an understanding permits a more timely, accurate and appropriate delivery of services. Key to this objective has been attitudinal change involved in recognising the diversity of clients and their needs and regarding them as having a right to expect quality of service, be they Ministers, industry, pension recipients or fellow public servants.

This focus necessitates more effective use of delivery standards and, increasingly, the acceptance of best practice as driving both the setting of standards and the allocation of resources necessary to achieve them. Increasingly, benchmarking and best practice are becoming measures for assessing the efficiency and effectiveness of our performance.

In turn this acceptance is resulting in more innovative and flexible work practices, a particularly important outcome as we seek to develop a more competitive environment. An environment which recognises alternative suppliers both within and outside the APS for many of the services traditionally provided on a monopoly or near monopoly basis. An environment in which the APS seeks to continuously improve its performance and an environment in which the APS is increasingly accountable for the management of its performance.

This not to say that the APS has been free of mistakes and misdemeanours. But we do we appear to have been free from the wide-spread corruption and maladministration that has been uncovered in some other administrations. These occurrences in other administrations have themselves been a motivating force behind our continuing interest in the APS in fostering and maintaining appropriate conduct, ethical behaviour and accountability.

What do we mean by performance?

The terms performance and performance management can carry different meanings for different people. In the APS our definition is best illustrated by outlining the different dimensions of performance that have been the focus of major reforms over the last decade.

Foremost among the early reforms were changes to our financial management arrangements, involving reforms to expenditure controls, improved resource management and accounting processes and a stronger focus on achieving program objectives.

Structural reforms introduced flatter structures to remove excess layers of management, but raised some concerns about the imbalance between responsibility and decentralisation. Planning reforms reflected a major cultural change with greater focus on objectives, and increased accountability and scrutiny of results achieved.

Industrial reforms brought about more participative work practices, enhanced capacity to manage workplace change to meet individual agency circumstances and improved staff relations.

Commercial reforms have produced improvements in the delivery of government services, but have also sharpened the focus on the different skills required in a commercial environment and some incompatibilities with our existing people management arrangements.

This wave of reform featured a common theme - improving the performance of APS agencies. They were essentially focused on improving our systems and institutions, including our industrial arrangements, institutional structures, budgetary processes and planning and decision making processes.

However, challenges remain to reform our people management framework and we have commenced this work.

Today when we speak of performance and performance management in the APS we are increasingly focusing our attention on the performance of our people - as individuals and as members of teams. We are focusing more on fostering a culture which supports their performance and the development of their skills and less on detailed procedural prescription and rigid work systems.

Our contemporary focus is on a definition of performance which values:

A definition of performance which seeks a balance between 'getting the job done', behaving in accordance with the expectations of Government and the community, and contributing to the career aspirations and well being of our people.

A definition of performance which underlies the distinctiveness of public service and acknowledges that judgements about complex issues take into account demands for public accountability, as governments and the community are interested not only in what is achieved but also how those outcomes are achieved.

General forces impacting on the environment in which public servants operate that have implications for ethics and standards of conduct

Our definition of performance is in many ways a reaction to developments in the APS over the last decade or so. A decade in which much reform has occurred. But also a decade in which the APS has been keen to maintain the critical balance between adopting evolving management practices which contribute to efficiency and effectiveness and maintaining the values which distinguish public service.

On the one hand we have sought to gain the benefits of contemporary approaches to management, such as:

While on the other hand we have sought to retain the traditional values of:

and to embrace the newer principles of:

It is the continuing pursuit of a balance between contemporary approaches to management and our traditional values of public service that has been at the heart of our focus on conduct, ethical behaviour and accountability over the last decade.

Our definition of performance recognises the importance of this balance and distinguishes public service performance through its focus on ethical behaviour and accountability.

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B. New Initiatives

In the APS we have tried to broaden the conventional view of people management being largely about a system of rules and regulations by embracing the more holistic view that managing people involves the synthesis of three interacting dimensions:

Each of these dimensions is critical in fostering effective performance and ensuring that APS reform objectives are implemented as intended in the workplace. But it has been our experience that APS people management approaches have usually only focused on one of these dimensions. Typically, we might have our systems in place, but our skills would be lacking or the workplace culture has not been conducive to good people management practice.

However, while we have focused to date on our people management systems, we are making some progress on the other two dimensions of people management. More recently we have recognised the importance of the skills and knowledge of our managers and their people - we are giving considerable attention to human resource development. We are also recognising the importance of culture in supporting the people management system and our people's skills and knowledge.

Our approach to further fostering appropriate conduct and ethical behaviour in the APS has been to address these three dimensions of people management. At the same time we have emphasised conduct and ethics as key components of performance management and located performance management in the broader context of a strategic approach to people management.


Several important initiatives have recently been undertaken or commenced aimed at encouraging appropriate conduct and ethical behaviour in the APS.

Most important of these initiatives has been the revision of the Guidelines on Official Conduct of Commonwealth Public Servants undertaken by the then Public Service Commission (PSC) under the guidance of the Management Advisory Board (MAB). The Guidelines set out the standards of conduct required of public servants, with particular emphasis on acting with honesty, integrity and probity, being responsive to the public, making fair and equitable decisions and working professionally.

The revision of the Guidelines involved extensive consultation with portfolio Secretaries and heads of agencies and their staff, union representatives, officials from other public sectors and academics.

The original Guidelines were first published in 1979 and later revised in 1987. The 1995 Guidelines now include issues which were not adequately covered in the 1987 edition. Additional issues included the requirements of the Privacy Act 1988, the changes in accountability arising from financial reforms, greater emphasis on equity, dealing with whistleblowing and fraud control, and inclusion of the Key Public Service Values.

The revised Guidelines have been written in a style that is user-friendly and in plain English. They have been structured around the professional relationships that public servants have with:

The MAB has published two important documents which guide the behaviour of public servants in 1993. Building a Better Public Service which included the Key Public Service Values and Accountability in the Commonwealth Public Sector which provides advice to public servants on the main principles and practices underpinning the accountability framework for Australian public administration. The MAB is currently working on a third publication which will set out the ethical framework for the APS and provide practical advice in the form of case studies.

The new Public Service Act, which is expected to be proclaimed in early 1997, will bring together in legislation for the first time a set of values and a code of conduct for public servants.


The Public Service and Merit Protection Commission (PSMPC) has undertaken extensive work promoting the key messages in the Guidelines on Official Conduct and the MAB publications to line managers across the APS. This has been achieved through a national series of seminars, workshops and training modules which have been conducted publicly or within individual agencies, and inclusion of an element on conduct and ethics in all management and executive training programs.

All of this work has emphasised the importance of understanding issues relating to conduct and ethics in the broader context of performance management.


Appropriate conduct and ethical behaviour have been central to work which the PSMPC has recently undertaken providing good practice advice on managing people's performance in the APS. This work has been supplemented by journal articles on conduct and ethics which have identified examples of good practice in individual departments and agencies.

Role of line agencies

This three-dimensional view of people management also holds special significance for individual department and agency heads. They have responsibility for ensuring that they:

A number of agencies have been very active in developing their individual codes of conduct and practice to supplement the Service-wide guidelines. Many have been active in conducting seminars to raise the awareness of their people to issues related to conduct and ethics and at least one agency has established an Ethics Committee to provide advice to individual people seeking advice on particular dilemmas and as a forum for considering significant issues within the agency.

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C. The Ethics Infrastructure

The Public Service and Merit Protection Commission has overall responsibility for maintaining the ethics and conduct policy infrastructure in the APS on behalf of Government and under the guidance of the Management Advisory Board. However, the day to day management of ethics and conduct is the responsibility of individual secretaries and agency heads.

Our approach to ethics has been to articulate a set of Key Public Service Values which describe the culture sought in the APS. These values establish the ethos of the APS and, as statements, they are intended to:

The Key Public Service Values were first articulated by the Management Advisory Board through its publication Building a Better Public Service in 1993. The Key Public Service values are:

While public servants' ethical behaviour and judgements are influenced by values, there is another more specific layer of reference which guides their behaviour. Public servants are required to comply with a series of rules and obligations which are contained in legislation. The main source is the Public Service Regulations, but there are also requirements in the Public Service Act and other legislation such as those dealing with anti-discrimination, occupational health and safety and the privacy of personal information.

The main specific obligations are:

The Guidelines on Official Conduct of Commonwealth Public Servants, which were revised in 1995, elaborate on these provisions but also cover additional material such as:

The code of conduct encompassed in the Guidelines does not envisage exceptions. The code derives from ethics and ethos but it is specific - its purpose is to regulate behaviour. Infringements of the code are taken to be misconduct and can lead to disciplinary action.

(a) Capacities in investigation

Breaches of laws, other than the Public Service Act, are usually dealt with by the criminal prosecution process. Investigation of alleged breaches is conducted by the Australian Federal Police, usually in conjunction with staff of internal fraud control units. The most frequent areas for investigation are breaches of the Crimes Act, the Taxation Act, the Customs Act and the Social Security Act, for example relating to fraud, illegal use of seized goods or unauthorised access to, or release of, personal information.

Cases for the prosecution are prepared by the Director of Public Prosecutions, in close co-operation with agency representatives. Cases of this kind are generally heard in the Federal Court.

Breaches of the Public Service Act and Regulations are managed within the employee's agency. Investigation of allegations is conducted initially by an Authorised Officer, to establish the existence of a prima facie case. In that event, an Investigation Officer from within the employee's current agency is appointed to complete the investigation and to determine the type and quantum of the sanction that will apply. The types of sanctions available range from a reprimand, through fines, reduced salary, transfer or dismissal. Significant sanctions may be appealed to a Disciplinary Appeals Committee of the Merit Protection and Review Agency. Appeals against dismissal are dealt with by the Industrial Relations Commission and, as necessary, by the Industrial Relations Court.

Where a public servant has been convicted of a criminal offence, his or her employing agency may decide to take action under the Public Service Act to apply a further sanction, particularly where the agency believes that the reputation of the APS has been damaged by the criminal finding. A similar range of sanctions, including dismissal are available. These cases are dealt with in a similar, but usually more streamlined, manner than other breaches of the Public Service Act.

(b) Special bodies responsible for ethics

As mentioned earlier in this document, the Public Service and Merit Protection Commission has several responsibilities in this area.

These cover:

The Management Advisory Board has an overarching interest in promoting good conduct within the APS. Its endorsement of the Guidelines on Official Conduct is evidence of this as well as their interest in a forthcoming publication on the APS ethical framework.

(c) Effective accountability and control mechanisms

Agency performance is subject to a number of control mechanisms. The Auditor-General audits financial performance within the context of the annual Budget. He may also choose to undertake an efficiency audit of some aspect of an agency's activities and will report to Parliament on the outcome. These reports are followed up within the parliamentary committee system.

Also within the budget process individual departments and agencies are required to report annually to the Parliament on their performance. The Legislative Committee of the Senate has direct access to senior public servants, in seeking to clarify the details of proposed program expenditure.

The Commonwealth Ombudsman deals with complaints from the public against decisions or actions taken by an agency. The outcome of these investigations may be made public.

(d) Codes of conduct/ethics

As mentioned in the text of this document, the APS-wide code of conduct is primarily set out in the Public Service Regulations. Agencies are currently able to supplement these principles, although they do not have the force of law. The APS-wide set of key public service values has been widely promoted and adopted throughout the APS. Some agencies have supplemented and refined these principles for their own situations.

The revised Public Service Act will contain a clear code of conduct for the APS with the capacity for agencies to supplement the code. It is intended that any supplementary principles will have the force of law.

There is currently no separately existing code of conduct for ministers or members of Parliament, although the Department of Administrative Services produces guidelines for MPs on particular issues.

(e) Professional socialisation mechanisms

As noted in the document, agencies are responsible for promoting good conduct, consistent with the framework and arrangements established by the Public Service and Merit Protection Commission. Training is concentrated at the induction stage, but most agencies have an ongoing program of education and training. Representatives of the PSMPC are often involved in these training programs.

(f) Conditions of public service

Senior Officers and Senior Executives are subject to annual appraisal against a range of performance criteria. Where a more than satisfactory rating is obtained, the individual concerned may receive performance pay, which varies according to the level of performance achieved. Generally performance agreements specifically require that ethical conduct be maintained. It is widely understood that good conduct is a basic requirement of all public servants and breaches of the standard will be sanctioned. The significance of the sanctions available, including dismissal, act as a deterrent to the majority of staff.

(g) Political support

The APS enjoys a high reputation for its integrity and professionalism and this reputation has been acknowledged by Prime Ministers and Ministers since federation.

The new coalition Government expressed, through its public administration policy statement, strong support for a public service imbued with an ethos of service, integrity and probity, and as a source of non-partisan, loyal and objective professional advice to the government of the day. The statement also emphasised the continuing importance of accountability and professional and technical best practice.

There is high-level bipartisan support for the broad thrust of recommendations for the new Public Service Act which will include the key public service values and the code of conduct.

The Public Service Commissioner has regularly in his speeches emphasised the importance of integrity to the APS and to the public at large, as have many senior agency representatives.

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D. The Future

The PCMPC will continue to play a key role in leading debate on the distinctiveness of the role and nature of public service in Australia - a debate which accepts the challenge of seeking to enmesh contemporary approaches to management and the underlying principles of public service; a debate which seeks to preserve the essential values of ethical behaviour, impartiality, equity and merit, while simultaneously striving for best practice in service delivery; and a debate which acknowledges that governments and the community are interested not only in what is achieved but also how those outcomes are achieved.

Articulating a definition of performance with ethical behaviour and accountability as key ingredients is central to our approach to fostering an appropriate culture for the Australian Public Service as we approach the next century - hence our focus on a definition of performance which seeks a balance between getting the job done efficiently, behaving ethically and contributing to the career aspirations and well being of our people.

Debate on the role and nature of public service will refine thinking on the key public service values and the code of conduct which will be included in the new Public Service Act which is expected to be proclaimed early in 1997. The Guidelines on Official Conduct of Commonwealth Public Servants will again be revised during 1996 to accompany the proclamation of the new Act. In this process the discipline arrangements which apply to breaches of conduct are being simplified.

Complementary advice on ethics will be provided by the Management Advisory Board through a publication on the APS ethical framework during 1996. This publication will contribute to the maintenance and development of high ethical standards in the APS by increasing awareness and understanding of issues involved. It is intended to provide senior managers in particular with a conceptual framework for ethical conduct. Individual agencies will be expected to provide complementary guidance to their people which relates directly to the work undertaken by the agency and the ethical issues which arise from it.

Further work in relation to whistleblowing will be undertaken with particular attention being given to protecting the position of individuals who make disclosures.

This work on our legislative and guidelines framework for managing the behaviour of public servants will be supported by continuing efforts to refine public servants’ understanding of the distinctive nature of public service and their decision-making skills to further foster a culture supportive of ethical behaviour and accountability.

The PSMPC, for its part, will continue its active role in training and educating public servants in appropriate conduct and ethical behaviour. This work will increasingly mainstream conduct and ethics related training into broader management training, particularly performance management.

The PSMPC will also continue to encourage individual agencies to develop codes of conduct and practice which supplement the Service-wide arrangements and which reflect the values of their individual cultures and circumstances. An important feature of this work will be identifying and promoting examples of good practice in departments and agencies with a particular focus on agency codes of conduct and practice, and training and education strategies.

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Last updated: 07/02/01