For many of us Christmas is a time of giving and receiving. However, for those working in the public sector whether to give or receive can be a little more complicated. CourtHealth's latest blog explores the do’s and don’ts of gifts and hospitality during this festive season.
Rules about gifts and hospitality are not a new thing for the public sector, however, for a long time there was considerable wriggle room in what was and was not allowed. In 2016 the Victorian Public Service Commission (VPSC) took the step of setting minimum accountabilities that provide clarity not only for public officials but for those who do business with the VPS and the public in general.
Now the rules are not aimed at friendly gestures – for example, providing coffee and mince pies at your December meeting – but they are aimed at benefits that could be seen to influence, require a return favour or diminish public trust.
The VPSC defines non-token gifts, hospitality and benefits as those that are valued at more than $50 ($100 for some Victorian Government school employees). It is now a requirement that all public officials declare non-token offers even if they don’t accept them. This would include things like offers to Christmas parties where the per head cost is likely to meet the non-token definition ($50). Public sector organisations are required to record all offers in a register and to publish the register on their website. The VPSC also requires that non-token gifts are only accepted with written approval from the invitee’s manager or an organisational delegate.
Irrespective of the value of an offer, the VPSC requires that public officials assess whether an offer has a legitimate business purpose and whether it presents an actual, potential or perceived conflict of interest. Indeed, there may be some circumstances where offers – token or non-token – should not be accepted. For example, accepting an invitation to an end of year bbq from a contractor where a procurement process is planned or underway, is a definite no-no. Those responsible for an organisation’s procurement activities are in a particularly delicate situation when it comes to offers, as they are central to ensuring that their organisation exemplifies the highest standards of integrity, impartiality and accountability when selecting suppliers. With this in mind, it is prudent that officials in these roles consider very closely whether the acceptance of any offer could create a conflict of interest.
The VPSC also provides guidance on the provision of gifts, benefits and hospitality by public officials. For example, holding a stakeholder Christmas function. In such a case, the VPSC requires that the "hospitality is provided for a business purpose in that it furthers the conduct of official business or other legitimate organisational goals, or promotes and supports government policy objectives and priorities." The costs of such functions must be proportionate to the benefits and be reasonable in terms of community expectations.
Of course, aside from some notable exceptions such as the end of year bbq mentioned above, generally there is nothing wrong with socialising with people – suppliers – that you have been working with all year. In those situations, it is best for public officials to pay for themselves. Officials will, of course, need to ensure that too much ‘Christmas spirit’ doesn’t result in ‘loose lips’. That is, it is a requirement to comply with the VPS Code of Conduct – especially the confidentiality provisions – at all times.
The VPSC has a Gifts, Benefits and Hospitality Resource Suite available on its website. It includes long and short versions of the policy framework, model policies and registers, and a very useful one page ‘ready reckoner’ – the GIFT and HOST tests – for public officials considering whether to give or receive.
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CourtHeath would like to extend best wishes for the festive season to all its clients. Our offices will be closed from 20 December 2017 and re-opening on 8 January 2018. Have a safe and restful break.
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IMAGE: Used under licence from shutterstock.com.
Julia Cornwell McKean.
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