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Friday, September 10, 2010

Integrity missing in administration of NSW law

The full text isn't on the website (Update: it's here and raises a whole range of important issues that go beyond the SMH report) but this Sydney Morning Herald report of a speech by NSW Ombudsman Bruce Barbour about ethical and professional lapses in the NSW public sector  draws from Freedom of Information investigations to illustrate lack of transparency, and that too many public servants regard integrity as an old-fashioned, optional concept. Barbour calls for a public service integrity act.(Update on an update:This SMH( second on the page) editorial picks up on broader issues and suggests Premier Keneally should revitalise the current discredited system -  even at this late stage, it could do wonders for her government's battered reputation.)

There has been no agency in NSW charged with overall responsibility for leadership and oversight on public sector values, ethics, and professional standards since the abolition of the public service board thirty years ago. It shows. 

Barbour is right in acknowledging the integrity of a vast majority of public servants across the state, but pointing to too many examples of a lack of ethics and integrity which signalled a ''lack of transparency'' in public life. 

It may take a while for the message to get through but since 1 July improper interference with decisions and concealing information when dealing with a GIPA application are criminal offences, not just ethical lapses.

Update continued-Here are Barbour's concluding remarks, including a call, strongly supported here, for public debate and re-examination of the integrity structure. A response from Premier Kennealy in a speech soon would kick this along nicely.

"Any discussion about living up to ethical standards needs to involve not just clear and effective legislation and codes of conduct and strong and committed leadership from the top, but also recognition of the importance of independent, secure and strong watchdog bodies. If they are not strong and stable, many ethical breaches will never see the light of day.

So why am I raising these issues now? Well it’s about timing, and about needs and expectations. More than any other time in my memory the people of NSW are concerned and worried about government accountability, decision making, openness and transparency – and of course integrity and standards. We see it day in day out in our work and in the concerns people bring to us.

What better time for us to have the discussion, the debate about issues such as public sector standards, and truly independent oversight bodies. We are all used to the rhetoric surrounding ethics, and the stated support for robust and independent watchdog bodies. Isn’t it time to go beyond just rhetoric and for us to really get serious about integrity and oversight?

It is not all bad news. Things are not horribly off track and we have much that is positive in our systems, but they could so easily be substantially improved. Let’s commit to legislated ethics and standards in NSW. It is time for us to catch up with everyone else.

Let’s have an open and genuine discussion about our integrity structure. Do we have the right bodies performing the right roles – do we need to make any changes? How can we better strengthen and maintain their independence? In this respect, there is a particular need to look at the way watchdog bodies are funded. Are we the same as all other government agencies, should we be funded the same way, is it appropriate that we be viewed as part of the executive – the consequence being that we are not truly independent?

Regrettably, it is no longer easy to see a vision or sense of direction around the integrity structure in NSW. There is no plan for stronger and improved ethics and accountability as a core component of all government planning and decision-making. It is clearly in the public interest that this change. The people of NSW have faith in their public servants – but it is not blind faith. Their trust must be earned, and we have to make sure not to lose it, because when it is gone, we will struggle to get it back."

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10:05 am

    Full text available on the ombudsman's website: