Restore public service integrity, says NSW Ombudsman

By Angela Dorizas

The New South Wales Ombudsman, Bruce Barbour, has called for integrity to be restored in the state’s public service.

Tabling his Annual Report for 2008-2009 in parliament today, Mr Barbour warned that questionable ethics and integrity lapses were common problems within the public sector.

“Too many public servants think integrity is an old fashioned, optional concept,” Mr Barbour said.

“Integrity is essential to good public administration and is something the public demands – it isn’t out of style and it certainly isn’t optional.”

Mr Barbour said incidences of integrity lapses included a council knowingly levying an illegal charge to police lying to protect colleagues from disciplinary action; a council going against its own legal advice to retrospectively apply a new development contribution charge to a number of older development consents in a bid to raise almost $2 million in additional revenue; public servants misleading the public about the existence of documents when processing Freedom of Information (FOI) requests; and police officers caught speeding in unmarked police vehicles then lying to avoid fines.

Mr Barbour advised government departments to not delay in responding to community concerns and complaints.

He said public frustration with government departments stemmed from poor communication and delays in responding to feedback.

“Agencies have to make sure people know what is going on, otherwise they are likely to assume the worst,” Mr Barbour said.

“Small problems should be dealt with quickly before they have the opportunity to escalate.”

In 2008 to 2009, the Ombudsman’s office received 32,994 complaints and notifications including 24,252 informal complaints and inquiries and 8742 formal complaints and notifications.

The office also audited more than 10,000 agency records and consulted more than 1300 people in systemic investigations and reviews.

“Our systemic investigations allow us to go beyond the legislation, policy and procedure to see what is actually happening,” Mr Barbour said.

“Elaborate policies and procedures are of no use if they are not effective or are not being correctly applied.”

Reviews completed this year included the Joint Guarantee of Service (JGoS) for people with mental health problems and disorders living in Aboriginal, community and public housing.

The Ombudsman found that current discharge planning, training and development, along with exchange of information between agencies, had hampered the effectiveness of JGoS.

A review of the Department of Ageing, Disability and Home Care’s (DADHC) provision of services to Aboriginal communities was also conducted.

Mr Barbour said the DADHC had attempted to promote their work but Aboriginal communities were often uncertain of the role of the department and the services it offered.

“Building good relationships is the key to working with Aboriginal communities,” he said.

“The department needs to work more effectively with communities to develop appropriate, flexible approaches to delivering services.”

An investigation of the state’s FOI Act was also undertaken by the Ombudsman, with the Rees Government accepting most of the 88 recommendations.

Mr Barbour said the developments following the review had been “very positive and herald a new era of accountability in government”.

“But I will be watching carefully to make sure the new system measures up to the promises that have been made,” he added.

Other areas of research and review included:

  • the impact of criminal infringement notices on Aboriginal communities;
  • children in care;
  • young people and the internet;
  • sexual offences by school employees;
  • the use of Taser weapons by police; and
  • WorkCover’s handling of an asbestos exposure incident.

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