26 July 2011

The appalling crimes in Norway over the weekend put consideration of ethical issues into the shade. We readily identify with the victims and share that country’s grief.  But we shrug off mass killings in a number of the world’s trouble spots. The scale perhaps, is incomprehensible.  Why is it that we seem accepting of the imminent collapse of war crimes prosecutions in Cambodia? In a similar way, the harm from street crime, with small numbers of victims, seems to agitate us more than massive frauds that devastate the lives of many, or the untrustworthy behaviour of officials that diminishes confidence in government and impacts on the strength of our communities.

Do we give enough thought to what is required by our standards of integrity?

The State Services Commissioner has a mandate to set minimum standards of integrity and conduct. That has been done with a code of conduct described as aspirational  (a misspelling according to the MS word check).  In guidance about behavioural expectations the Commissioner emphases conduct that will engender public trust.  For ease of reading he lists what is meant by trustworthy behaviour. There is nothing listed that would surprise a right thinking person. He also lists behaviour that is considered unprofessional because it harms public trust.  Included in that list is “to allow our actions to be influenced by personal relationships, self-interest, or personal obligations or to act in a way which may reasonably be seen as improperly influenced by others”. In principle, few would challenge the pertinence of this.  Our practice is different.

Self interest is a challenge for us all.  Transparency is the prophylactic.  Being open about what we do encourages circumspection, it exposes us to the assessments of others, and means we can see ourselves as others see us. That is why any gifts and hospitality received by officials should be registered and the register made accessible not only to colleagues, but to the public. That is why chief executives in State Services agencies disclose benefits they receive, and expenses they claim, on their websites every six months.

But that is not good enough. The registers of benefits received by all their staff should be published.  That is why the Treasury in leading the way, is doing the right thing.