NSW public service fails on ethics

The NSW Government watchdog has criticised the public sector for lacking ethical standards. Photo: iStock.

By Angela Dorizas

The Deputy Ombudsman of New South Wales, Chris Wheeler, has called on the State Government to conduct a comprehensive review of the systems and structures within the public service to ensure ethical conduct.

Wheeler told delegates at the University of NSW Ethical Excellence conference that the NSW Government had failed to put in place a number of mechanisms to ensure good governance, particularly in relation to standard setting.

"From what I can see, if I were to go out on a limb and try to rank Australian jurisdictions in terms of the comprehensiveness of their approach to ensuring appropriate conduct by public officials, I would hazard that Queensland probably comes the closest while NSW appears to be the furthest away," Wheeler said.

He recommended that the Government put in place a legislated statement of values and standards of behaviour for public officials, adding that “from an ethics perspective NSW is somewhat of a legislative desert”.

Wheeler also criticised the Government for failing to implement a jurisdiction wide code of conduct.

"Every other Australian jurisdiction has one, but not NSW. All we have is a ‘model’ code to provide some guidance to agencies in the development of their own codes," he said.

"There have been at least two attempts that I am aware of to develop a public sector wide code of conduct in NSW, but despite a lot of time and effort being put into the development of such a code by representatives of the Ombudsman, ICAC, Audit Office and Premier’s Department, neither were successful."

He said NSW lacked a central, independent agency responsible for setting ethical standards.

"I think one of the reasons why NSW falls down in these fundamental areas is because, unlike other Australian jurisdictions, there is no central agency statutorily charged with establishing and promoting appropriate standards of conduct by public officials,"Wheeler said.

"Merely having an Ombudsman and a corruption body is not enough."

He urged the State Government to carry out a long overdue review of the current systems and provide a proper foundation for promoting ethical conduct to bring NSW into line with all other state, territory and Commonwealth governments in Australia.

ICAC disagrees

The Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) commissioner Jerrold Cripps, QC, told GovernmentNews that the "blanket approach" suggested by the Deputy Ombudsman would not be appropriate for preventing improper conduct.

"Each agency needs to identify what risks are likely in its organisation and how best to combat them; for example, secondary employment could be inappropriate for employees that deal with procurement on behalf of an agency, but may not be an issue for a school teacher who wants to undertake a part-time job serving in a cafe," he said.

Nor did he agree that the Government should put in place a legislative statement of values and standards of behavior for public officials.

"Queensland has a Public Sector Ethics Act, and I would be surprised to learn that this legislation had any effect on improper conduct in the public sector," he said.

"I can also see no reason for the establishment of a central agency responsible for setting ethical standards, which would be an additional public official acting as an ‘Integrity Commissioner’.

"I believe that the presence and functions of the ICAC, Ombudsman and Auditor General are sufficient."

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