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Wednesday, December 01, 2010

State of Service report opaque about culture of transparency

The annual State of the Service report issued by the Australian Public Service Commission and the accompanying State of the Service Employee Survey  2009-2010 provide useful insights into attitudes and approaches of our public servants. Overall the Commission concludes "that APS performance compares well with that of its peers. Yet there is always room for improvement .." The Commission is to be commended for publishing these details. Some relevant issues addressed include:

Knowledge about integrity matters 
Much is made (Report Chapter 3) of the  government's initiatives to implement or announce measures in 2009–10 aimed at strengthening the integrity and accountability of government,  including
• APS Reform Blueprint
• freedom of information reform
• Commonwealth whistleblowing scheme
• Government 2.0 and the declaration of open government,
• Lobbying Code of Conduct and Register
• government advertising.

"Last year’s State of the Service Report indicated that agencies needed to increase employee awareness of the Standards of Ministerial Ethics (2007), the Code of Conduct for Ministerial Staff (2008), the Register of Lobbyists (2008) and the Lobbying Code of Conduct (2008). For each of these measures respectively, 38%, 43%, 39% and 42% of agencies (that had provided regular services or advice to ministers and/or their offices) reported promoting
them to staff during the year.

For those employees who had direct contact with ministers and/or their advisers, the survey showed:
• 16% reported familiarity with the Standards of Ministerial Ethics and another 54% reported having heard of, but not being familiar with, the Standards
• 20% reported familiarity with the Code of Conduct for Ministerial Staff and another 58% reported having heard of, but not being familiar with, the Code
• 22% reported familiarity with the Register of Lobbyists and another 51% reported having heard of, but not being familiar with, the Register
• 18% reported familiarity with the Lobbying Code of Conduct and another 48% reported having heard of, but not being familiar with, the Code.
On transparency, draw a blank
But no questions in the survey asked about familiarity with FOI changes or the Declaration of Open Government, an opportunity missed to establish a benchmark for measuring cultural change over time. And on the "chill factor" side, wonder how many are aware that disclosure without authorisation is punishable by up to two years in jail?

However employees don't rate bosses highly on this one
A proxy to some extent was that of the five Senior Executive Service leadership attributes most commonly selected as important by staff, "show transparency and fairness in decision making" was the one where employees rated performance lowest (Report Figure 1.8). The survey showed a narrow positive response 37% ( 7% Very Satisfied, 30% Satisfied) over negative 32% (23% Dissatisfied, 9% Very Dissatisfied) with the rest indicating neither one nor the other or not sure.

Perceptions of those outside government looking in are unlikely to be better, and possibly much worse.

Public perceptions may be in the frame next year
The Commission appears to be warming to the idea of asking what the citizens think:
The Commission has also been tasked with exploring the feasibility of a citizen survey to improve the quality of APS service delivery. This is another international public sector trend identified in the APS Reform Blueprint as offering substantial opportunities to improve organisational performance. Canada and, more recently, New Zealand regularly survey their citizens and report considerable benefits from doing so.
Public servants warned "stick to the facts"
What will some public service leaders prominent in public debate in recent times make of this call:
Governments should ensure that the role that public servants are asked to play in public debates, especially in a Web 2.0 environment, is consistent with the apolitical nature of the APS, the APS Values and the Code of Conduct. Public servants have long supported the government of the day by providing factual information in support of government decisions, for example before Senate Estimates and in public forums. It is important that these roles not slip inadvertently into contentious advocacy. This is true in the Web 2.0 environment but it is also true in respect of more traditional mechanisms such as speeches,
reports or published papers. Public servants, especially senior public servants, have to exercise informed judgement in such matters.
But rationalise that with this:
There appears to be a level of ambivalence about the benefits of online engagement in the existing APS culture. The Australian Public Service Commission’s online engagement guidelines note that Web 2.0 provides public servants with unprecedented opportunities to open up government decision-making and policy implementation to contributions from the community. The guidelines encourage APS employees to engage in robust policy conversations, in a professional and respectful manner. However, any online participation by APS employees, including as a private citizen, must comply with the APS Values and Code of Conduct.

 Yes, Gov 2.0 is proving to be a struggle:
The findings of the State of the Service Report also indicate that the APS may not yet be fully capitalising on the benefits of Web 2.0 to rapidly convey information and gain feedback on a range of government initiatives and services. The employee survey showed that 31% of APS staff and 28% of service delivery employees have access to social media and networking tools in the workplace. (Table 4.4) Of those with access to these tools, most agreed the tools have helped them more effectively carry out their work.
"To date, adoption of Web 2.0 technologies in the APS has relied on individual agencies’ interest and enthusiasm."

Surprise-ministers pose unspecified challenges
..employees were asked if they had, in the previous 12 months, faced a challenge in balancing the need to be apolitical, impartial and professional; to be responsive to government; and to be openly accountable in dealing with ministers and/or their offices. The survey question sought to explore potential tensions in the three principal APS Values relating to the relationship between the APS and government. The proportion of SES and EL employees who reported facing a challenge increased from 23% in 2007–08 and 24% in 2008–09, to 31% in 2009–10. However, this is still lower than in 2004–05 and 2003–04 (41% in both years).
There were 19 allegations of a breach of the APS Code of Conduct through leaks-in 42% of cases investigated a breach was found.(Table 3.3)

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