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Probity, ethics and good governance in the public sector

By Melanie Olynyk

• 08 December 2014 • 7 min read
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There is currently a high level of public awareness and concern about probity and integrity issues, particularly in the public sector. This article looks at what probity, ethics and good governance means for those in the public sector. It does so from a number of perspectives, including the individual and the organisation. It also comments on what can be done to promote the standard expected from government agencies.

It has been said that 'an effective way to understand probity is to think of the principles of honesty, ethical conduct and a transparent process'.1 Also, integrity means 'acting with honesty and transparency, using powers responsibly and striving to earn and sustain public trust'.2

There is a clear connection between the concepts of probity and ethics. Ethics 'is concerned about what is right, fair, just or good about what we ought to do, not just about what is the case or what is most acceptable or expedient'.3

So, it has been said that ethics in the public sector goes beyond what is 'strictly legal' to incorporate a sense of propriety. While something may not be clearly prohibited, it may nonetheless be open to criticism. As the former Lord Mayor of Adelaide, Dr Jane Lomax-Smith, has said a reality check in this context is to consider 'the impact of an action being described on the front page of a newspaper'.4

The principles of probity, ethics and good governance operate on many levels – from, the individual, to the organisation and on to the 'watch-dog'.


For individuals, probity is about understanding the limits of their authority and powers and acting within those limits. Public servants need to be conscious at all times of the need to uphold the highest standards of conduct in their dealings on the government's behalf, which includes acting with integrity and avoiding conflicts of interest.

Having a conflict of interest is not morally wrong or unethical in itself. The challenge is in recognising and managing them. Public servants should also be aware of the need to avoid any perception of bias in their dealings. This requires an open mind in decision-making and acting fairly and impartially in good faith.

It is helpful to recognise what the impediments to ethical decision-making are and to know how to reach ethical decisions. For example, such impediments can include having insufficient or incorrect facts, not having clear goals, pride or fear (leading to individuals not asking questions, or not seeking help, or not being prepared to make the hard, but right, choices), pressure from (a perceived) lack of time, and tunnel vision. As has been said, '[w]hen under time pressure, we can be too focused on a particular task to the extent that we may close our eyes to what is more important'.5

So, when making decisions, public servants should think about whether they have all the relevant facts, who is likely to be affected by the decision, what the options are, what the likely consequences of those options are, whether relevant persons have been consulted, whether they would be happy if the decision were open to public scrutiny, how they would feel if they were the subject of the decision, and whether the decision is consistent with their values and those of their organisation.6

For public servants involved in project management, consideration should also be given to the use of independent probity advisers and probity auditors. In general, a probity adviser establishes the probity approach (as recorded in a probity plan) and provides advice and assistance during the project on probity issues, while a probity auditor conducts a review of the probity approach, and so checks what has transpired against the probity plan in reporting on the outcome of the process. The probity adviser and probity auditor functions should be provided by different parties.

When deciding whether a probity adviser or auditor is required, public servants should consider whether the integrity of the project may be questioned, there has been a history of controversy or litigation, the project is politically sensitive and vulnerable to controversy, there are high stakes involved for bidders, it is an innovative project where bidders are likely to be concerned about protecting their ideas, or the project is very complex, such as build-own-operate-transfer schemes, joint projects between the public and private sector or projects involving substantial government funding.7

A failure by government agencies to uphold proper standards of conduct and probity has consequences. These include possible employment implications, and being the potential subject of 'watch-dog' investigations.


For organisations, probity is about setting values at an organisation level, and then implementing those values through policies and codes of practice. It is then for managers to demonstrate those values through leadership, to positively reinforce the values and also to ensure compliance with, and enforcement of, the values.

The Auditor-General released an updated Public Sector Governance Better Practice Guide in June 2014. In his foreword, the Auditor-General states that effective governance can make a real difference to the performance of public sector entities and to the outcomes sought by the government. In particular:

Achieving effective governance depends on developing and maintaining appropriate and accepted governance structures and frameworks; it also depends heavily on the application of appropriate governance choices and a commitment to making them work. It is the positive interaction between the 'hard' and 'soft' elements of governance – the structural and people elements – that leads to improved performance. In this respect, strong leadership is a critical driver for success; it can ensure appropriate governance arrangements are in place and foster ownership of the entity's goals and strategies by its staff.

So, first and foremost, government agencies should establish an ethical culture. Then, they should set out to live that culture, for example, through the behaviour of their leaders, through the promotion of the values (for example, codes of conduct), by providing guidance (for example through activities such as effective induction, ongoing training and counselling), by monitoring compliance (for example through complaints procedure and internal audits), by identifying and managing high risk activities and areas (for example large scale procurement and development), by reinforcing values (for example through rewarding, recognising and promoting staff who exemplify the values), and by enforcing compliance (for example through appropriate sanctions).


At another level, there are the watch-dogs, being the public sector bodies charged with oversight and investigation of standards and behaviours. These bodies can include:

  • the Ombudsman, who investigates complaints about administration (all Australian jurisdictions)
  • the Auditor-General, who oversees the management of resources in the public sector (all Australian jurisdictions)
  • an integrity agency, responsible for investigating and exposing misconduct and corruption.8

There is no doubt that there has been an increased scrutiny of government in recent times, particularly of its governance and procurement processes. There are consequences if probity is ignored and so it is in everyone's interests that the right culture be established. The responsibility on government agencies is to promote high standards of integrity, demonstrate leadership through their own actions and through documented policies and procedures, and identify and address unacceptable practices. This involves actions by both the organisation and individuals.

1. Victorian Ombudsman, Investigation into the probity of the Kew Residential Services and the St Kilda Triangle developments (June 2010).
2. Proust E and Allen P, Review of Victoria's integrity and anti-corruption system, 2010.
3. Preston N, Understanding Ethics, 1996 (Federation Press).
4. Lomax-Smith J, Ethics Prospects, in Bishop P and Preston N (eds) (2000), Local Government; Public Enterprise and Ethics, The Federation Press, Sydney.
5. Goldberg R, Ethics – Ways of Thinking & Acting, 28 February 2008.
6. Ibid.
7. ICAC, Probity Auditing: When, Why and How (December 1996).
8. For example, the Victorian Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission, the New South Wales and South Australian Independent Commission/er Against Corruption, the Queensland and Western Australian Crime and Corruption Commissions and the Tasmanian Integrity Commission.

By Melanie Olynyk

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