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Promoting Transparency and Accountability: The Vital Role of Probity in Safeguarding Integrity

March 13, 2024

Following a review of submissions, on 29 February 2024 the Parliament of Australia's Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit (JCPAA) expanded its terms of reference. Initially tasked with examining the Department of Home Affairs' failed visa privatisation process, JCPAA has now broadened its scope to encompass at least eight additional IT procurement processes across the public sector. This decision reflects mounting concerns regarding IT procurement spending within the Australian Government and issues surrounding the ethical use of resources and behavior. It marks the latest in a series of inquiries by the JCPAA into probity and ethics within the Australian Public Service (APS), including scrutiny of systemic factors contributing to unethical behaviour, and other procurement activities including those within Services Australia, the National Disability Insurance Agency, and Defence.

In the last few weeks, we’ve also seen the NSW Auditor General issue a number of reports that underscore the need for robust probity and governance frameworks to safeguard public resources and maintain public trust. Adverse findings were made in relation to the design of the WestInvest program, where a lack of documentation relating to program design and allocation of funding has called into question the basis on which $5 billion in public money was given to Western Sydney recipients. Safework NSW was called out for a range of governance failures and was referred to the Independent Commission Against Corruption for one of its procurement activities. Transport for NSW’s management of the Driver vehicle System (DRIVES) to support its regulatory functions was also reported on, highlighting deficiencies in strategic planning (including waste of funds), cyber security measures, and service management.

In his recent address to The Mandarin’s Rebuilding Trust and Integrity in the APS conference, Commissioner Paul Brereton highlighted that thousands of referrals had been made to the National Anti-Corruption Commission less than a year since its establishment. He stated “[t]he nature [of the issues being referred to the Commission] illustrates the point that we’re no longer dealing with cash in brown paper bags, but the misuse of information and access, or lapses in ethical decision-making”. Amongst the issues referred to the Commission, procurement, recruitment and promotion feature prominently. The Commissioner noted it’s not just about training and personal responsibility, but also about creating structures that encourage integrity.

Probity serves as a safeguard against corruption, ensuring that decision-making processes are fair, impartial, and in the public interest. It encompasses a range of principles and practices aimed at promoting honesty, integrity and ethical behaviour within organisations and institutions. From procurement to contracting, to recruitment, regulatory compliance and decision-making, probity standards play a vital role in maintaining the trust and confidence of citizens in the public service.

In Australia, where democratic principles and the rule of law are fundamental, upholding probity is not just a matter of good governance, it is a moral imperative. The public expects their elected representatives and public officials to act with integrity and accountability, safeguarding public resources and the interests of the community above all else.

Effective probity frameworks can help prevent ethical lapses by establishing clear guidelines, procedures and oversight mechanisms to detect and address misconduct. This includes clear conflict of interest policies, robust documentation, whistleblower protections, independent auditing and monitoring processes, and regular training and awareness programs.

Moreover, investing in probity strengthens the resilience of institutions against external pressures and undue influence, ensuring that decisions are made based on merit and evidence rather than personal gain or vested interests. It promotes a culture of transparency and accountability, where public officials are held to the highest ethical standards and accountable.

By implementing transparent processes guided by probity principles, organisations can enhance trust, integrity and accountability in their activities. This not only reduces the risk of corruption or unethical behaviour, it also fosters confidence among stakeholders and strengthens public trust.

Centium is an independent assurance advisory firm that focuses on helping clients manage their risks. We partner with Australian state and local government, not-for-profit organisations and private sector clients to provide a complete solution to managing organisational risk, enhancing governance and improving operational performance. We believe that the principles of effective governance and risk management apply to all aspects of managing an organisation, from procurement, to probity to technology and business transformation.

Useful References

Parliament of Australia, Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit, Inquiry into he failed visa privatisation process and the implementation of other public sector IT procurements and projects, https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Public_Accounts_and_Audit/IT_procurement_and_projects.

The Mandarin, Anti-corruption commissioner recaps the first months of the NACC, 23 February 2024, https://www.themandarin.com.au/240053-paul-brereton-first-six-months-of-nacc/.

NSW Audit Office, Design and administration of the WestInvest program, 28 February 2024, https://www.audit.nsw.gov.au/our-work/reports/design-and-administration-of-the-westinvest-program.

NSW Audit Office, Effectiveness of SafeWork NSW in exercising its compliance functions, 27 February 2024, https://www.audit.nsw.gov.au/our-work/reports/design-and-administration-of-the-westinvest-program.

NSW Audit Office, Driver vehicle system, 20 February 2024, https://www.audit.nsw.gov.au/our-work/reports/driver-vehicle-system.

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