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Public integrity is great, but what is it?

Published on 1 Jan 2018

The offices of the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption (ICAC) and the Office for Public Integrity (OPI) were designed to safeguard and enhance confidence in the integrity of public administration in South Australia. But just what is this ‘integrity’ we are to safeguard and enhance?

It can be tempting to view integrity simply as the lack of wrong doing. If no-one is doing the wrong thing then we have integrity. However, integrity in public administration is more complicated. 

A review of definitions from the United Nations, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Transparency International and varied Australian state governments identified some key themes:

Public Trust

Earning and sustaining the public’s trust in public administration. Ensuring there are adequate systems to prevent or minimise the chances of a betrayal of that trust. 

Public Interest 

Those employed by or elected to public administration are to faithfully serve the public interest. They should prioritise public over private interests when performing their duties. They should resist the influence of private interests.

Morality

For those in public administration to consistently act in line with ethical principles or values that are accepted by the public. Particularly the need to act honestly and respectfully.

Impartiality

For those in public administration to perform their duties without bias or influence. Including recognising and addressing conflicts of interests. 

Transparency 

For public administration to be open and transparent with information freely shared with the public. 

Abuse of power 

Those in public administration to not improperly use the power they have been granted for personal benefit or in ways contrary to moral or ethical principles. 

Accountability

For those in public administration to be obliged to report on how public resources are used, how they perform their duties and be answerable for failing to meet performance standards.

As can be seen, concepts of integrity in public administration are multi-faceted. There is obviously a great deal of overlap between these themes yet each allows for distinct areas of intervention, policy and performance measures. 

Taken as a whole and at its most basic, public administration is ultimately a system established for the service and benefit of the public. When public administration is improperly used for private purposes or benefit, integrity is breached. Transparency and accountability help ensure public administration remains focused on the public good. 

Beyond these themes, a review of varied definitions also reference a shared  understanding of morality and appropriate behaviour. Perceptions of what is moral and appropriate behaviour go beyond simply following rules and its spirit should be embraced and actively promoted by both individuals and institutions. 

Integrity in public administration also requires an acknowledgement of and compassion towards human frailty. Even genuinely well-meaning and dedicated professionals can make mistakes.The cumulative impact of minor mistakes or errors can, however, be great. 

This can also steadily feed a culture where corruption may begin to take hold. Acknowledging that everyone has the capacity to make mistakes, integrity measures must all include a series of checks, balances and rules. These are to both help support us to consistently act with integrity and help guard against corruption and other types of wrongdoing. 

Consequently, integrity in public administration is not simply the lack of corruption but also actively developing systems and a culture which make it difficult for corruption to take root; helping ensure that those given responsibility by the public carry out their duties in a moral manner, holding the public interest as paramount. 

It is these active attempts to foster a culture where corruption is monitored for and rejected, and staff at all levels embrace values which promote the public good which is the end outcome of a public administration with integrity. 

At ICAC we encourage you to look at both your organisation and your team and see what are your strengths and weaknesses in terms of these seven themes. Celebrate your successes and consider how to help further develop a culture and the necessary systems to actively encourage integrity. 

 

This article was published in Issue 8 - January 2018 of ICAC's newsletter.

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References

Commissioner for Public Sector Employment, ‘Code of Ethics for the South Australian Public Sector’ (Office for the Public Sector) 

Armstrong, Ella, ‘Integrity, Transparency and Accountability in Public Administration: Recent Trends, Regional and International Developments and Emerging Issues’ (United Nations, Economics & Social Affairs, 2005) 

Government Sector Employment Act 2013 (NSW) Døssing, Helle et al, ’Mapping Transparency, Accountability and Integrity in Primary Education in South Africa’ (Transparency International, 2011) 

Integrity Coordinating Group, Government of Western Australia, Integrity in the Public Sector <https://icg.wa.gov.au/integrity-public-sector> 

New South Wales Government, Our Values – NSW Public Sector (2015) <https://iworkfor.nsw.gov.au/our-values> 

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, ‘OECD Recommendation of The Council on Public Integrity: Public Integrity’ (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2017) 

Public Administration Act 2004 (VIC) 

South Australian Public Sector Act 2009 (SA) 

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, United Nations Convention Against Corruption (2004) <https://www.unodc.org/documents/brussels/UN_Convention_Against_Corruptio...

Victorian Public Sector Commission, ‘VSPC Integrity Strategy, updated May 2017’ (Victorian Public Sector Commission, 2017)