22 March 2012

Accepting a gift is always an ethical challenge for an official.

Is the gift given as a common courtesy? Is the gift related to the performance of a function? Does it relate to something done “after hours” but reflecting work responsibilities? Is it given to mark the completion of an offical activity?

Unless a gift is of nominal value and given either as a common courtesy or because the official was an unidentifiable member of a large gathering it should not be accepted without careful consideration of the ethics involved.

The ethical principle is that officials should not accept any benefit without the consent of their employing agency. Anything provided by the employer is acceptable. Any other benefit, in cash or kind, must have the informed approval of the employer. This principle covers secondary employment as much as it covers gifts, hospitality and educational opportunities – regardless of how directly related they may be to official responsibilities.

Many OECD countries have a prohibition on officials accepting benefits of any sort. Others condition the prohibition with a proviso that the gift could not be seen to influence the performance of duties. That is the approach in the relevant integrity standard ofn the State Services code of conduct. That requires that “We must decline gifts or benefits that place us under any obligation or perceived influence”.

The Auditor General adopts a purist line in the Sensitive Expenditure guidelines:

8.26  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); “

State servants of all levels of seniority seem to have a blind eye when it comes to bottles of wine. Officials invited to speak at gatherings in their official role ( otherwise they would often be inappropriately using official information ) or speaking in official time ( otherwise inappropriately using official resources) seem habitually adapted to receiving bottles of wine when proffered in acknowledgement of their contribution. The contribution of course is made by their organisation, although a record of the the gifted wine seldom makes its way to a gift register and even less seldom into the organisation’s cellar for use at the discretion of managers.

A media report this week is of gifting alcohol to Chinese officials. Moutai, the “Chinese national drink” costing about $500 a bottle is commonly used to bribe officials. Apparently there is a Chinese saying – “Those that buy Moutai don’t drink it; those that drink Moutai don’t buy it.’”

(Disclosure: I did not accept a bottle of wine offered in recognition of a speaking engagement yesterday.)