Confidence in the Australian public sector is at an all time low. How can it restore its reputation?
Every year, Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index measures and compares the perception of the public service sectors of nations from all over the world. Last year’s stats just came in, and it appears that Australia’s downward slide is continuing.
Chief executive of Transparency International Australia, Serena Lilywhite, says a loss of trust in the public sector is responsible for the the slide.
The index figures show that we currently sit as the 13th least corrupt country – which isn’t dreadful but our overall points have dropped and Lilywhite details the reasons she thinks are behind it.
“The misuse of travel allowances, inadequate regulation of foreign political donations, conflicts of interest in planning approvals, revolving doors, a culture of mateship and inappropriate industry lobbying in large-scale projects such as mining, and the misuse of power by leading politicians have no doubt had an impact,” she says.
Negative press around scandals such as last year’s ATO fraud case, in which former deputy commissioner Michael Cranston’s son Adam was the ringleader, are surely not helping matters. Factor into that the recent accusations of nepotism splashed cross every major news outlet against Barnaby Joyce, and you can get a sense of why public perception is dropping.
Discord from within
It’s not only the community’s perception of the public sector that has soured, it appears the troubles are also coming from within. A recent survey by the Australian Public Service Commission of public sector employees showed five per cent had witnessed some form of misconduct. Although seemingly quite low, this is double what it was three years ago. Not to mention, former NSW Supreme Court Judge Anthony Whealy said corruption could be more prevalent than we know.
“People who work in the public service, in many instances, would be afraid to report their superiors or even their equals who are involved in corruption,” says Whealy.
“I think there is a significant chance that these figures are very conservative and the level of inappropriate behaviour amounting in some cases to corruption would be considerably higher than these figures demonstrate.”
What’s so good about New Zealand?
How can the public sector restore its reputation and regain the community’s trust?
Let’s start by looking at what New Zealand is doing right. The country put in place a “Better Public Service Results Program”, in 2012 and it appears to be working for them. The five year initiative revolved around 10 quantified objectives, spanning the whole government, whose aim was to improve the community and the lives of the disadvantaged.
Key to the success of the program was a commitment made by the government to ensure executives are collectively culpable for performance, and that the different factions would actively collaborate to achieve the shared goals.
Former Prime Minister Bill English said of the programs success last year, “Since we introduced the Better Public Services targets in 2012 we have seen tangible and long-lasting results in priority areas like reduced welfare dependency, better educational achievement, improved healthcare and less serious crime”.
Collective responsibility and selective targets
After trialling individual responsibility for both outcomes and behaviours, the New Zealand government found collective responsibility to be much more effective. But this required the different sectors to work together, something they had not done before the program began.
To aid this collaboration and build a trusting relationship, they started with the small stuff. They began sharing information with each other before jumping in the deep end and attempting to solve complex problems. They then worked in small groups and shared responsibility across hierarchies.
In terms of the set objectives, they chose targets that were few yet clearly defined, and things that would have the greatest impact. And with persisting problems, they resigned to the idea that certain methods don’t work and developed new approaches.
Perhaps our own government should take a strategic leaf out of New Zealand’s book. Jon WIlliams, partner people and organisation at PwC, says a different approach may be required.
“In former times we relied on a high historical trust level and an environment of mateship and letting people worry about their own backyard,” he says.
“Now that we have much greater transparency (driven by technology), a more invasive media ethic, greater levels of adversarial political bipartisanship and global # movements of disclosure, we are likely to require a more structured approach (as the New Zealanders have done) and a way to find a more measured public dialogue about expectations and public behaviour.”
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