Section 2: Relationship with the public

Last updated: 17 Feb 2016

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2.1 Summary

2.1.1 Trust in government and a nation's democratic institutions is significantly influenced by the experience of business and the public as clients of the public service. Trust is also sustained by open and inclusive policy-making, as noted in recent reports of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). [6]

2.1.2 The public's experience of service delivery has been transformed by advances in information and communications technology, enabling the government not only to deliver services in a more citizen-friendly manner, but also to incorporate business and community perspectives into service design and delivery.

2.1.3 Australian Public Service (APS) employees at all points along the service delivery chain—from those involved in high-level policy development to the people delivering front line services—must engage effectively with the community in the performance of their duties.

2.1.4 Employees should understand the legal and institutional framework in which they operate, and administer the law fairly and equitably, providing responsive, efficient and effective services. Public servants undertaking service delivery roles should provide reasonable assistance to help the public understand their entitlements and obligations; and must engage with the public respectfully and courteously.

2.2 APS Values

2.2.1 The APS Values are set out in the Public Service Act 1999 (PS Act). The Australian Public Service Commissioner's Directions 2013 (the Directions) determine the scope and application of the Values. Agency heads and employees are required to comply with the Directions. The Directions that are most relevant to those employees whose duties involve working directly with the public are outlined below in relation to each of the Values.

Committed to Service

2.2.2 The Committed to Service Value provides for an APS that is professional, objective, innovative and efficient, that works collaboratively to achieve the best results for the Australian community and the Government.

2.2.3 The Directions about this Value require APS employees to engage effectively with the community, working actively to provide responsive, client-focused service delivery. Employees must provide appropriate information to clients and the community about rights and entitlements, and the process for gaining access to them. Employees must also ensure that decisions and interactions with clients are objective and impartial, and in accordance with government policy.

2.2.4 Government and the community expect prompt and high-quality service from APS employees. It is important that their work contributes to maintaining these high standards.

2.2.5 Information about rights and entitlements should be provided in accordance with government policy, agency procedures and the law. This information should be conveyed effectively and respectfully, recognising the diversity of our community. Information should be presented in plain English, avoiding use of jargon, acronyms, abbreviations and references to which the community may not have access, including unnecessary references to legislation. Information should be targeted to the audience, providing relevant information such as the right to review and how to complain.

2.2.6 Discrimination in the provision of services on a range of grounds, including disability, sex, marital status, pregnancy, family responsibility, race, colour and national or ethnic origin, is generally unlawful. More information about the promotion and protection of human rights can be found on the Australian Human Rights Commission website.

Ethical

2.2.7 The Ethical Value provides for an APS that demonstrates leadership, is trustworthy, and acts with integrity in all it does.

2.2.8 The Directions about this Value require APS employees to comply with all relevant laws, appropriate professional standards and the APS Code of Conduct. Employees must act in accordance with government policy and decisions. An employee's actions must also comply with the law. [7]

2.2.9 The law can sometimes be complex. The work of public servants may be subject to many different statutes, regulations, other legislative instruments and other rules. Employees should ensure they know and understand the laws that are relevant to their duties.

2.2.10 When working with the public, employees must follow through on commitments made and must be able to demonstrate that they have acted with honesty and integrity. Employees are expected to act in the right way, as well as the technically and legally correct way.

2.2.11 The Directions about this Value also require employees to provide leadership in policy development, implementation and program management. This requirement is relevant to consultation with the community on these matters.

Respectful

2.2.12 The Respectful Value provides for an APS that respects all people, including their rights and their heritage.

2.2.13 The Directions about this Value require APS employees to treat all people with dignity, recognising that all people have value. They should deal with all people honestly and with integrity. Employees should recognise the importance of human rights and understand Australia's human rights obligations, and comply with all relevant anti-discrimination laws. They should recognise and foster diversity and be open to ideas in policy development, implementation, program management and regulation.

2.2.14 An awareness of, and sensitivity to, the diversity of the Australian community is important to achieve quality advice and service provision. It ensures different perspectives are brought to bear on decision-making. Good policy and program delivery is responsive to the needs and interests of different community groups.

2.2.15 Consultation with the community and business sectors is critical to policy development and program design. Different perspectives promote innovation and can produce new ideas. Good policy requires a thorough understanding of the issue to be addressed and the impact any policy proposals would have on stakeholders. Governments are rarely able to impose policy solutions in isolation, and the success of resultant programs is dependent to a large extent on the ability of government to mobilise wide community support.

2.2.16 When working with the public, collaboration may include:

  1. ensuring members of the community have a reasonable opportunity to contribute to policy development and program design
  2. correctly identifying relevant stakeholders in the community and understanding their interests and backgrounds
  3. listening to, and having appropriate regard to, the views of community representatives
  4. working with stakeholders to refine and develop approaches
  5. notifying the community of the outcomes of the policy development or program design process and the likely impact on community members.

Accountable

2.2.17 The APS is open and accountable to the Australian community under the law and within the framework of ministerial responsibility.

2.2.18 The Directions about this Value require APS employees to be open to scrutiny and transparent in decision-making. They should be able to demonstrate that actions and decisions have been made with appropriate consideration. Employees should be able to explain actions and decisions to the people affected by them. Employees are accountable for their actions and decisions through statutory and administrative reporting systems.

2.2.19 One of the ways in which employees contribute to the proper functioning of government is by making decisions that comply with policy and law. This applies both in the management of programs and in deciding individual cases. Decisions that may affect the rights and entitlements of people may be subject to the requirements of administrative law.

2.2.20 The Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act 1977 (AD(JR) Act) also establishes the obligation to provide reasons for decisions in many circumstances. [8]

2.2.21 Keeping a record of the reasons why a decision is made is good practice. It helps decision-makers think more carefully about their task, challenge their assumptions and logic and encourage more care in reaching a decision. It assists agencies to assess the quality of their outcomes and to improve decision-making standards.

2.2.22 The decisions public servants make may be reviewed by a general review body such as the Ombudsman or a court, or by a specialist body such as the Privacy Commissioner or the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Impartial

2.2.23 The Impartial Value provides for an APS that is apolitical and provides the Government with advice that is frank, honest, timely and based on the best available evidence.

2.2.24 The Directions about this Value require APS employees to implement government policies in a way that is free from bias, and in accordance with the law. When working with the public either delivering services or when co-developing policies, employees need to take account of the context in which the policies are to be implemented and be aware of the broader policy directions set by the Government and possible implications for the longer term.

2.3 Providing information

2.3.1 In doing their work, employees are expected to exercise reasonable care in providing information. Information may be sought and provided face to face, over the telephone, electronically or in writing. In all cases it is important to have regard to the following:

  1. employees have a duty to exercise reasonable care and diligence to ensure that information provided is accurate
  2. employees should consider the use an enquirer may make of information sought and the degree to which they may rely on that information
  3. the standard of care required will relate to the nature of the enquiry and the possible consequences that may arise from the provision of incorrect information
  4. when there are doubts about the relevant facts, the reliability of the information, or the authority of the employee to provide it, these should be made known to the enquirer
  5. where information is being given on a matter that has not been finalised, the interim or conditional nature of the information should be made clear
  6. in some circumstances, it may be relevant to suggest to enquirers that they consider seeking independent professional advice, for example from a lawyer or accountant
  7. if information is provided orally, it is generally advisable to make a record of the information given.

2.4 Standards of dress

2.4.1 As a general guide, the appearance and dress of APS employees should be in accordance with the standards appropriate to their agency, their duties and the people with whom they are dealing. Employees are obliged to behave in a way that upholds the good reputation of their agency and the APS, and should dress in a way that reflects respect for clients and other stakeholders.

2.4.2 Some agencies have particular standards of dress for their employees. In addition, some employees may be required to wear uniforms or safety clothing. Agency dress codes must not discriminate unlawfully.

2.4.3 Employees are advised to be careful about wearing clothing, for example t-shirts with a slogan, which might be viewed as expressing a political opinion. See Section 6: Employees as citizens for further information.

2.5 Managing complaints

2.5.1 Complaints may arise when citizens access agency services, whether seeking an entitlement or benefit, access to funding or because the agency has regulatory responsibility for activities the citizen is engaged in. As the Commonwealth Ombudsman has noted: [9]

Good complaint management requires individual staff members to identify and support complaints in their general interaction with the public. Staff members should see complaints as valuable and know that dealing well with complaints is an important part of their job.

2.5.2 It is good practice to be alert to communications that might constitute a complaint, even when the word 'complaint' is not used.

2.6 Dealing with difficult people

2.6.1 From time to time, employees may have to deal with difficult, abusive or aggressive customers or clients. As the Commonwealth Ombudsman has noted: [10]

Anecdotal evidence from a wide range of organisations and jurisdictions indicates that this problem is widespread. What's more, the number of people who present as difficult seems to be on the increase and the nature of the difficulties that agencies have to deal with seems to be getting more complex.

2.6.2 Agency heads have a duty to manage risks to the health and safety of their employees. See Section 3: Relationships in the workplace for further information. Agencies may have in place policies and procedures to assist their employees to deal with difficult clients. These may include restricted servicing arrangements that enable the needs of the clients to be addressed without subjecting employees to behaviour that is potentially damaging to employees' health and well-being.

2.6.3 In all circumstances if confronted with a difficult or abusive person, employees are advised to remain calm, positive and avoid taking unnecessary risks. If in doubt, they should seek the support of a supervisor or colleague. An employee should withdraw if they feel intimidated or threatened. The police should be contacted in extreme cases.

Agency policies and procedures

  1. The avenues available to agencies to assess the quality of service they provide include:
    1. measures of performance against an agency's service charter
    2. audits carried out by the Australian National Audit Office
    3. complaints and own motion investigations by the Ombudsman or the Australian Human Rights Commission
    4. inquiries by parliamentary committees
    5. the Australian Public Service Commissioner's annual State of the Service Report
    6. customer complaint mechanisms put in place by individual agencies
    7. client surveys
    8. correspondence.
  2. The Commonwealth Ombudsman's Better practice guide to managing unreasonable complainant conduct (2009) provides guidance on dealing with difficult people. The online environment is an emerging area of concern for inappropriate behaviour and bullying, including in the workplace.
  3. The Australian Public Service Commission's publication Cyber-bullying of APS employees by members of the public is aimed at helping APS managers to manage situations where their employees are targeted by clients or other stakeholders for actions they have taken in the performance of their duties.
  4. Agencies are expected to ensure that decision-makers are provided with adequate policies, procedures and guidance relevant to the decision-making process, including up to date information regarding case law.

Footnotes

[6] See, for example, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Government at a glance 2013, p. 20.

[7] See Green v Daniels (1997) 51 ALJR 463.

[8] See the Administrative Review Council's Best practice guide 1: Decision making—Lawfulness (2007) and other guides in this series.

[9] Commonwealth Ombudsman, 2014. Complaint management by government agencies: An investigation into the management of complaints by Commonwealth and ACT Government, p. 9.

[10] Commonwealth Ombudsman, 2009. Better practice guide to managing unreasonable complainant conduct, p. 1.