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Embedding the APS Values

Feedback from agencies and a review of the contemporary literature on integrity and ethics was used to update the APS Values Framework, which was first introduced in 2003 to better recognise the stewardship role of APS leaders in building an ethical culture. As indicated earlier, for the benefit of the new APS Values to be realised it will be important to ensure they are thoroughly embedded into the day-to-day work of agencies. In 2012–13, the Commissioner released a guide to assist agencies to achieve this—Strengthening a values based culture.

The new model (Figure 3.2) sets out four building blocks for strengthening a values-based culture:

  • Commitment to the APS Values as the basis for the way we do business
  • Leadership to integrate the Values into agency decision-making processes and culture; leaders who consistently reflect the Values in their own behaviour
  • Management Systems that integrate the APS Values into day-to-day operations
  • Assurance mechanisms that provide confidence that decisions and actions in the APS are based on the APS Values.

Figure 3.2 A model for strengthening a values-based culture in the APS

Source: Australian Public Service Commission

Promoting the APS Values and other standards

In 2012–13, 92% of agencies reported communicating the new APS Values to employees. Pamphlets and posters were the most commonly used means, followed by material on agencies' intranets. Sixty-four per cent of agencies have included the new Values in their employee induction programs and another 30% intend to do so. Nearly half of all agencies have plans in place to fully incorporate the new Values in corporate documents, policies and/or performance management procedures.

The APS serves the government of the day and many APS employees are required to balance the APS Value of impartiality with the Value of commitment to service in their daily activities. In the 2012–13 State of the Service agency survey (agency survey), 70% of agencies reported regularly providing advice to ministers or their offices. This result is similar to previous years. Table 3.1 shows the guidelins promoted by agencies to their staff to assist them in this. These results are similar to previous years.

Table 3.1 Guidelines promoted by agencies that regularly interact with ministers and their offices, 2012–13
Guidelines promoted Agency size (no. of employees)
Small (<251) % Medium (251–1,000) % Large (>1,000) %
Source: Agency survey
Standards of Ministerial Ethics (December 2007, updated September 2010) 32 36 73
Register of Lobbyists (May 2008) 18 32 59
Lobbying Code of Conduct (May 2008, updated June 2012) 29 32 68
Code of Conduct for Ministerial Staff (July 2008) 25 36 64

Ethics Advisory Service

The Commission supports sound decision making based on the APS Values and Employment Principles by operating the Ethics Advisory Service (EAS) and facilitating a network of agency-based Ethics Contact Officers.

The EAS assists all APS employees, including SES staff and agency heads, by providing guidance on how to apply the APS Values, Employment Principles and Code of Conduct as well as on strategies and techniques for ethical decision making. In 2012–13, the EAS received 719 enquiries from 86 APS agencies. Of the enquiries that fell within the scope of the EAS, 45% were from individual APS employees and 43% from agency human resource practitioners, with the majority of other enquiries from private citizens, including relatives of employees. Fifty-six per cent of those who made an enquiry and gave their classification were Executive Level (EL) employees, 30% were at the APS 1–6 level and 14% were members of the SES.

Figure 3.3 shows the main categories of enquiry. Suspected misconduct in the workplace and how to report it accounted for one-third of issues raised. Enquiries were received from employees wishing to make a complaint, employees under investigation seeking advice on procedural requirements, and human resource practitioners seeking advice on how to handle suspected misconduct in accordance with the legislative framework.

Figure 3.3 In-scope queries to the EAS by category, 2012–13

Source: Ethics Advisory Service

Other enquiries, grouped under the broad category of conflicts of interest, reflect perceived or actual conflicts between public servants' private interests and activities and their official duties. Employees sought advice on how to declare and manage conflicts of interest, including personal relationships in the workplace, recruitment and procurement, employment outside the APS, sponsorship and other gifts and benefits and, in the lead-up to the election, participation in political activity.

One issue raised with the EAS during the year concerned cyber-bullying, or online harassment of APS employees by clients and other members of the public. In response to this concern, the Commission established a working group of agencies to guide the development of advice to assist agencies in managing the risks and the effects of cyber-bullying. This guidance was released in October 2013. Cyber-bullying is also discussed in the context of employee health and wellbeing in Chapter 4.

Making comment online

One issue raised regularly with the EAS is how employees can make well-judged decisions when using social media in an unofficial capacity—that is, outside of their work role. It is clear from the approaches made to the EAS and from cases that have attracted recent media interest that this is a growing concern.

The use of social media and online networking tools by APS employees outside of their work role continues to be a matter of some uncertainty for agencies and employees. Many agencies have social media policies, and the Commission provides advice to agencies and employees on the considerations that apply when employees make public comment in a private capacity, including online. The APS Values, Employment Principles and Code of Conduct apply to employees' private behaviour, including online, to the extent that a reasonable connection can be drawn between the behaviour and their APS employment. Establishing such a connection and considering whether behaviour is consistent with the Values, Employment Principles and Code of Conduct must be done on a case-by-case basis, having regard to all the circumstances.

Notwithstanding this advice, a case arose recently in which an APS employee argued their capacity to make unofficial online comment under a pseudonym could not be circumscribed by the employer given the implied right in the Australian Constitution of freedom of political expression. The employee was unsuccessful in seeking an injunction to prevent the termination of their employment for a breach of the Code of Conduct for critical comments made on Twitter regarding the policies of the government and opposition on matters closely connected with the work of their agency. The court observed that a public servant did not have an unfettered right of freedom of political expression and the employee's right to pursue private interests was limited by their obligations to their employer, including under the Code of Conduct, which are supported by guidelines on employee use of social media.

This decision appears to be consistent with the Commission's guidelines, which note that while APS employees have the same right to freedom of expression as other members of the community, this right is subject to legitimate public interests, such as maintaining an impartial and effective public service in which the community can have confidence.

Another APS-related social media incident reported in the media this year, involving offensive comments an APS employee made on Twitter about a member of the public, demonstrated the impact unofficial public comment can have on the reputation of agencies and the APS. This was an example where an APS employee making offensive public comments online about another person was sufficient to draw public criticism of the agency's commitment to upholding high standards of personal conduct by its employees, risking reputational damage to the agency as a consequence.

Increased online engagement has blurred the distinction between work and private life to a much greater extent than before and has raised questions about APS employees' right to make public comment using a medium that encourages strident debate but which also leaves an enduring, easily replicated record with no guarantee of anonymity.

While there are some clear cases in which unofficial public comment by APS employees is unacceptable, there are also many that are far less clear. Enquiries to the EAS indicate agencies need to develop more mature and nuanced approaches to employees' unofficial online engagement. Adopting a wholly risk-averse position and advising employees to avoid making comment if in the slightest doubt about its propriety is unlikely to be conducive to harmonious working environments, or to building the capacity for sound decision making. Nor do employees have an unfettered right to make any comment at all, in any way they please. Ultimately, there is no single, simple answer to the question of what an APS employee may post online, and there is work to be done to develop agencies' and employees' capacity to consider and weigh individual issues as they arise.