In the Victorian Public Sector Commission newsletter Insights, Commissioner Dr Paul Grimes, highlighted the role of probity in developing an ‘infrastructure’ to support ethical conduct in the public sector. Grimes says that he uses the term ‘infrastructure’ deliberately noting that, while ethical leadership is widely considered a priority, the "organisational systems, processes and procedures" are often overlooked.
The Victorian Government Purchasing Board (VGPB) Guide to Probity outlines seven key principles applicable to procurement – the same considerations are relevant beyond procurement to any government decision making. As probity advisors, CourtHeath assists clients to put in place systems, processes and procedures that support ethical leadership.
In this blog we look at the seven probity principles from the VGPB guide, and discuss how they fit within Grimes’ concept of infrastructure.
1. Integrity and impartiality
Grimes refers to integrity as being central to the VPS code of conduct. Indeed, integrity is what earns and sustains public trust. Critical to that trust is that the VPS provides advice and makes decisions without bias and further demonstrates impartiality by ensuring objective consideration of relevant facts and applying fair criteria.
2. Equal opportunities for participants and respondents
Equity is key to ensuring fair processes. Whether it is a procurement process, a grants process or even recruitment all participants should be given the same information and equal opportunity to make their claim.
3. Consistent and transparent processes
"It is sometimes said that ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant," says Grimes. "Ethical approaches are more likely to flourish in cultures that embrace transparency and do not reflexively seek to avoid external scrutiny." Often we come across situations at CourtHeath where our clients tell us that they have followed the applicable policies and procedures but they are unable to demonstrate this – usually because inadequate records have been kept. Good records management can help bring about the cultural change that Grimes mentions, where external scrutiny is not avoided and organisations are confident that they can demonstrate the steps they have taken in relation to any particular matter.
4. Security and confidentiality of information
Both VPS employees and suppliers to the State have confidentiality obligations under their respective Codes of Conduct. Grimes highlights that the infrastructure for ethical conduct should include: "Clearly established standards and expectations around behaviours" and that the codes need to be supported by "clear and well communicated internal guidance." With this in mind, it is recommended that organisations: (1) be specific about what information is confidential, and (2) have clear, documented processes for making public statements and dealing with external enquiries about confidential matters.
5. Identifying and managing conflicts of interest
Conflict of interest is a priority for Grimes: "It is critical that staff and leaders at all levels clearly know and understand the various ways in which conflicts of interest can arise and how they should be addressed." It is a requirement that VPS employees put the interests of Victorians before their own in all aspects of their work, and to that end organisations should approach declarations of conflicts as positive opportunities for organisations to proactively manage risk.
6. Appropriate skills for each stage of the process
Training is an essential component of ensuring that staff in the VPS have the appropriate skills to undertake the roles they are given. Grimes pays particular attention to the provision of training to support ethical decision-making and suggests that organisations should be "prepared to ask hard questions about their training systems: do they genuinely equip their staff at all levels to always do the right thing, especially in high pressure situations?"
7. Probity practitioner(s) where complexity warrants independent oversight
Grimes says that organisations should actively support managers and staff to seek support and guidance when confronted with difficult decisions, and that seeking such support should not be considered a sign of weakness. Whether that support comes through informal processes, such as seeking advice from experienced colleagues, or formal processes through the engagement of a probity advisor, there is a lot to be said for talking through the pros and cons of a decision with someone else. As probity advisors, we often provide second counsel and assist organisations to balance risk, probity and good decision-making in practical ways, and our advice is not just sought in matters relating to procurement processes. Indeed, we assist clients managing a range of issues from developing good policy to making difficult decisions.
CourtHeath Consulting provides services to government and not-for-profit organisations.
Our probity audit and advisory services help clients meet government probity standards especially regarding conflict of interest, confidentiality, ethical conduct and corruption risks.
IMAGE: Used under licence from shutterstock.com
Written by Dr Julia Cornwell-McKean and Pauline Bernard.
[category courtheath's blog]
Probity, Integrity, Infrastructure