24 August 2012

Reports by both the Privacy Commissioner / KPMG  and the Auditor General into mishandling of personal information at ACC do not position the players in a good light. Both reports have observations about organisational culture and the impact on handling information.

As an agency to which the State Services Standards of Integrity and Conduct have been applied, questions arise regarding the commitment by ACC to that code, and the statutory requirement that “…an agency (including its employees) must comply…”

The Head of the State Services has commented that he is treating the findings of the reports seriously and is considering asking State sector agency chief executives to review their systems for handling personal information.  He refers to some good practice in the public sector, but is concerned that poor handling could undermine trust in State servants. As many employees in the public sector and in state sector agencies are not State servants, some may be confused by his conflated connection.

The Commissioner made no reference to a number of standards in the code of conduct which, from the tenor of the reports, seem to have had little influence on the leadership of ACC. In particular the standard that ACC and its employees  “… must treat information with care and use it only for proper purposes…” 

The Commissioner’s guidance about the code includes an explanation that

“…proper management of information is central to the integrity of the State Services. We have a duty to handle official information appropriately and ensure that personal privacy rights are preserved. We must all be familiar with legal obligations relating to the protection and release of official information. Statutory privacy principles must always govern the handling of personal information.  ….Public perception about the integrity of an organisation will be shaped by the way it manages information…. The obligation for honesty is pervasive…”

And repeated references in the reports to culture and fear must have implications for compliance with the standard that “…We must treat everyone with respect …” The Commissioner’s guidance explains that this means the public we serve and the colleagues we work with. “…This requires being courteous and contributing to the smooth functioning of our workplaces by:

  • not discriminating against anyone, except as legally required to give effect to our organisation’s functions
  • protecting the privacy of people accessing services
  • not harassing, bullying or otherwise intimidating members of the public or colleagues
  • respecting the cultural background of members of the public and colleagues
  • having proper regard for the safety of others
  • avoiding behaviour that may endanger or cause distress to colleagues
  • not allowing workplace relationships to adversely affect our work performance
  • valuing equality and diversity by understanding our differences…”

Something seems to have been missing at ACC in the commitment to promoting the Commissioner’s standards, integrating them into the way ACC operated, modelling those standards by all ACC managers, and taking decisive action on any breaches  – as in the “six trust elements”. The Commissioner said following the 2010 State Services Integrity Survey that agencies “… need an integrity plan based on the six trust elements and they need to be committed to implementing it…”

It seems ironic that on the same day that reports were released about ACC, Elizabeth Murdoch  in her James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture  should observe that “…there has been such an unsettling dearth of integrity across so many of our institutions…”