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(Kelly Thompson and her director Suzanne Lee are interviewed separately about a perceived conflict of interest)
Kelly Thompson – APS 6 Planning Section: I've been working at the Office of Planning and Construction for nearly two years now. The work I get to do is pretty interesting and you never know what's coming next. Recently, we were taken off line to do a special project, my work group and I, and I found that really interesting. I really like the variety that I get to do.
Suzanne Lee – EL2 Director, Planning Section: I really appreciate Kelly's enthusiasm. She's very passionate about things and when its channelled into the right project its great. Although, it needs to be managed sometimes. From experience I know that if she feels strongly about something she won't let it go.
Jenni Fortune - Local coordinator, Environment Now: I'm the local manager of a group called Environment Now. Basically we're a group all committed to the environment and preserving things. I've been managing it for about 10 years now. We are committed to saving public spaces for the future generations so that people can enjoy parks and playgrounds in 20 years from now and not have to walk around concrete buildings. As a group all our members are very active, we campaign regularly against things like urbanisation, preserving wildlife, trees. Basically our members are fantastic and keep their ears to the ground and any information that they can give us, that gives us a heads up, is very valuable.
Kelly: Part of our new project involves finding a site for a new commonwealth building so I am not going to be directly involved in the project but some of my colleagues have told me which of the sites that they are considering. One of the sites is parkland where I used to play as a kid and I've got fond memories of running around open spaces, climbing trees. Some of those trees must have been about 100 years old. It's just I've got some really good memories and all the local kids used to hang out there and I'm sure that that is still what they are still doing today. So it would be a real shame if they took that all away and put a building there instead. I would be pretty upset.
Suzanne: Kelly approached me and she had something on her mind. She wanted to discuss about one of the sites that was selected. I was a bit surprised because she's not in charge of the project, but she was concerned about one of the sites and she wanted to know if that could be excluded from the mix. Again, I was surprised. She said the site had some significant influence on the local community and if it was selected they would be upset and vocal about it. I tried to explain to her that the site fitted most of the criteria and unless there was some surprise uncovered it will be most likely be selected and again, I told her even if it is selected, only part of the land would be used and the rest of it will be as is. She seemed a little upset. I just put it down to her passionate nature. It's the way she is.
Jenni: What can I say about Kelly? She's great. She worked as part of our organisation for about 4 years now. She's highly motivated, enthusiastic and an excellent member to have on board. Her commitment is second to none. She gives up a lot of her time to run campaigns, voices her opinion at meetings. She's basically fantastic and I am so happy we've got her.
Suzanne: Today the Minister was ambushed at a press conference by a member of the public asking questions about the site. What worries me is that they were wearing an Environment Now tshirt and you may know them now. They are environmental activists and I am pretty sure I have seen one of these badges on Kelly's bag. So I remembered the conversation I had with her the other day and I put the two and two together. I told her that if she continues to support Environment Now like she has been she might find herself in a lot of trouble because this has caused the Minister a lot of embarrassment and her loyalty to the agency will be questioned.
Kelly: I was so shocked by Suzanne's comments. She may as well have said that I leaked the information. How dare she question my principles like that. I never talk about my Environment Now membership at work and I wouldn't talk about work at Environment Now. Just because I've got an opinion and I am passionate she assumes that I leaked the information. Aren't I entitled to my opinions? Aren't I entitled to participate in activities outside of work? She can't rule my life like that.
Reflecting on the exercise : Passion
Conflicts of interest
It is quite acceptable for APS employees to participate in political or community activities as part of their life within the community. However, APS employees are expected to separate their personal views from the performance of their official APS duties. When an employee's official APS duties are connected with their outside activities there is scope for an actual or perceived conflict of interest to arise.
All APS employees need to be aware that their private interests, both financial and personal, could conflict with their official duties. This may include memberships, affiliations and unpaid voluntary work. The Code of Conduct requires APS employees to disclose, and take reasonable steps to avoid, any real or perceived conflict of interest in connection with their APS employment. If an employee has any doubt about whether outside activities could present a real or perceived conflict of interest they should seek guidance from their agency.
Apolitical, impartial and professional
The role of the APS is to serve the Government of the day: to provide the same standard of policy advice, implementation and professional support, irrespective of which political party if in power. APS employees must be impartial in performing their official duties.
Disclosure of information
Openness is at the core of Australia's modern system of government. Public access to government information provides the public with the opportunity to contribute to policy development and decision making. However, inappropriate disclosures have the potential to damage the relationship of trust between the government of the day and its public service advisers. It may also reduce the capacity of the public service to have its views and experience taken into account in the policy development process.
Australian Public Service (APS) employees must not to disclose certain information without authority i.e. information communicated in confidence or where it is reasonably foreseeable that the disclosure could be prejudicial to the effective working of government, including the formulation of policies and programmes (APS employees should familiarise themselves with the full text of ther relevant regulation - Public Service Regulation 2.1). As well, APS employees must not make improper use of inside information i.e. using information obtained in official capacity in order to gain or seek to gain, a benefit or advantage for themselves or others.
If there is any doubt about whether official information can be disclosed in different circumstances and situations APS employees should consult their agency's instructions and guidelines and, if necessary, take up the matter with their supervisor.
Relevant Values and elements of the Code of Conduct
- The APS is apolitical, performing its functions in an impartial and professional manner (s10(1)(a) of the Public Service Act).
- The APS has the highest ethical standards (s10(1)(d) of the Public Service Act).
- An APS employee must disclose, and take reasonable steps to avoid, any conflict of interest (real or apparent) in connection with APS employment (s13(7) of the Public Service Act).
- An APS employee must not make improper use of (a) inside information; or (b) the employee's duties, status, power or authority in order to gain, or seek to gain, a benefit or advantage for the employee or any other person (s13(10) of the Public Service Act).
- An APS employee must behave honestly and with integrity in the course of APS employment (s13(1) of the Public Service Act).
- An APS employee must act with care and diligence in the course of employment (s13(2) of the Public Service Act).
- When acting in the course of APS employment treat everyone with respect and courtesy, and without harassment (13(3) of the Public Service Act).
Kelly's involvement with Environment Now
Does Kelly have an obligation to declare her involvement with Environment Now? If so, what would have been the likely effect on the situation?
Suzanne's reaction towards Kelly:
Does Suzanne have all the facts? Is her reaction to the Ministerial ambush justified? If not, how could she have handled it better? If Kelly had made an early disclosure of her involvement with Environment Now what could Suzanne have done to ensure that the conflict was managed appropriately? What help is available to her?
- Bear in mind that it is not only senior people who may face a conflict of interest. Apply the 'accountability or sunlight test'—what would this look like to a member of the public?
- If in doubt about whether to declare an outside interest, consult someone in authority in the agency.
- Use the REFLECT decision-making model if you have a gut feeling that something is not quite right?
- As a manager ensure that staff are regularly reminded of agency expectations and guidelines and policies.
- APS Values and Code of Conduct in Practice: a guide to official conduct for APS employees and agency heads (Chapters 3, 11, 13 and 15)
- Circular 2009/4: Disclosure of official information
- In whose interests?: preventing and managing conflicts of interest in the APS
- Respect: Promoting a culture free from harassment and bullying in the APS (management chapter)