4 January 2012

The return to work over the next few days should see the disclosure and registration of benefits whether accepted or declined over the Christmas “gift giving” period.

In guidance on “Understanding the Code of Conduct” the State Services Commissioner indicates that

We must not seek or accept favours from anyone, or on behalf of anyone, who could benefit from influencing us or our organisation. Organisations’ policies on accepting gifts and hospitality vary, depending on their business. In all cases, it is expected that gifts will only be accepted following a transparent process of declaration and registration. To avoid misperceptions, it is essential that the process is public.”

The traditional expectation was that nothing of value was acceptable as that gave rise to perceptions of possible influence. Agencies have evolved different views on what is a token and therefore, acceptable, gift.

The de minimis views of the Auditor General in the Controlling Sensitive Expenditure Guidelines get scant attention these days –   “We expect entities to:

  • require receipt of gifts, except for inexpensive gifts that are openly distributed by suppliers and clients, to be disclosed, to be recorded in a gifts register, and to remain the property of the entity;
  • allow staff to personally acquire only infrequent and inexpensive gifts that are openly distributed by suppliers and clients (for example, pens, badges, and calendars); and
  • have policies defining “infrequent” and “inexpensive” in relation to receiving gifts.”

The standard seems more influenced by the State Services Commissioner’s view on what is acceptable. Guidance to chief executives on the preparation of their disclosure of expenses and benefits indicated that “…the minimum value for a gift to be disclosed will be $100, rather than $50 as originally proposed.”

An interesting comparison is with the United States Office of Government Ethics latest report on prosecutions for conflict of interest breaches. Of the 16 convictions across federal agencies, half relate to managers influencing the award of contracts, or the grant of funds, to businesses in which they had an interest.

However 30% (and all of which resulted in fines and the imposition of probation) involved failing to, or falsely declaring gifts – usually tickets to sporting or social events totalling “only” several hundred dollars. The most blatant case involved a false declaration about an expenses paid golf trip, resulting in 12 months imprisonment and 2 years release supervision.