27 July 2011

Marketing people say that there is no such thing as bad publicity.  Should that apply when promoting the importance of integrity?

New Zealanders have difficulty initiating conversations about ethics and trustworthiness. We all have views but it is awkward territory for us. That’s why anything which puts a focus on integrity is a good thing. A  former State Services Commissioner often said that “we must not be embarrassed to talk about goodness”.  Attention being given this week to hospitality received by Treasury officers will help that talk.  The next few weeks may well see the media cast a passing light on chief executives’ gifts, hospitality and expenses also, as disclosures for the first half of 2011 are published. The value is not only in the inherent worth that comes from openness, but the conversations that flow from what is disclosed; about considering not just the easy choices between right and wrong, but the conundrum of which “right way” is best and most likely to promote trust.

State servants should always be encouraged to talking about integrity. SSC guidance indicates that such encouragement is a core role of managers – it is part of modelling and reinforcing organisational culture. That’s how we imbue the spirit of service.

The US Office of Government Ethics may well be sensitive about media attention at present.  Every 18 months it coordinates a conference for  ethics officers from across the federal government.  Because of their role, the majority are Washington based. This year’s conference is in Florida.  It is programmed from Tuesday to Thursday. These characteristics have invited criticism; the venue is a “magnificent golf and spa resort”, the programme anticipates a travel day on either side of the conference, there is the  opportunity for accompanying family to enjoy the attractions of Orlando, and so on. It is of course a national conference of interest to officials from parts of the US as pleasing as Florida, and it is the hurricane season. But these may be rationalisations.

The Washington Post has belittled the ethics – the “problematic optics” – of flying 540 officials from Washington to the sunshine (and 280 from elsewhere) for bonding and cross pollination.

Last month the media picked on a disclosure by the Office of Government Ethics that it spent almost 45% of its travel budget on international commitments. It criticised the ethics of looking offshore when the agency’s responsibilities are in the United States. The explanation that much of the travel was undertaken on behalf of the State Department’s international profile and refunded by that Department got lost in the noise.  But that noise is important. It reflects concern; it confirms that people care; it sets the public expectation.

Public sector transparency raises public awareness.  Public awareness strengthens trustworthy behaviour.  Trustworthy behaviour reinforces confidence in government. The outcome enhances the rule of law and good government. And that’s what we all want.

Gossip about questionable practices in agencies gets us thinking about what we should be doing.  It promotes conversations. Perhaps any publicity is good publicity.