28 September 2011

The Sydney Morning Herald, over the weekend, alleged that there is widespread corruption in the Australian Public Service. It claims that the APS may be little better than State and local government administrations throughout Australia despite having always promoted itself as much more ethical.

The paper states that “corruption in the Commonwealth government is just as prevalent as elsewhere in Australia”. Last year, in just 10 Federal agencies – and all told there are almost 1000 Commonwealth bodies of various shapes and sizes – there were just 21 cases described as corruption, and 247 cases of fraud. It claims that large numbers of allegations are never independently investigated, and that often cases that are investigated are abandoned. Over the last six years 919 investigations into fraud committed by public servants were prematurely terminated because the officers resigned.

The Australian Public Service Commission, has a responsibility for promoting integrity in much the same way as the New Zealand State Services Commission. Both are responsible for a code of conduct and have a duty to promote compliance. They have jurisdiction to investigate circumstances which may breach their codes. Criminal conduct is expected to be referred to the police for investigation. Very few cases are reported. The capacity to investigate other misconduct, particularly in the case of the State Services Commission, is nominal at best. The APSC is in the position to collate breaches of the code within agencies, unlike the SSC which seldom has any awareness of offending within the sector to which it provides ethical leadership and oversight.

Perhaps the United States has something which could be usefully replicated? US Federal agencies have an Inspector General who has an independent investigation power, separate from the audit function and at arms length from the agency head. There are 62 of them. The Government Accountability Office has reported this month that Americans seem to get monies-worth from them, gathering savings in the 2009 fiscal year of over US$43 bn for the $2.3 bn they cost to run. They were responsible also for nearly 6000 prosecutions, 1000 civil actions and nearly 4500 suspensions and dismissals.