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Program 1.1—component 1.1.1: APS people and organisational performance (part 3)

Ethics and integrity

In addition to progressing the amendments to the PS Act and subordinate legislation, a range of other work has been done this year to support ethics and integrity in the APS.

Ethics Advisory Service

Consistent with its client service charter, the Ethics Advisory Service has continued to provide expert advice and resources to APS employees and agencies through its telephone and email service and the Commission’s website, to promote understanding and awareness of the APS ethical framework. The number and nature of inquiries to the service in 2012–13 will be reported in the Commissioner’s 2012–13 State of the Service Report.

Throughout 2012–13, the Commission also provided information sessions to agencies on topics that included the APS Values, APS whistleblowing, preventing and managing bullying and harassment, and making public comment online.

Ethics Contact Officer Network

The Ethics Contact Officer Network was established by the Commission in May 2009. Ethics Contact Officers support their agencies by providing a point of contact for discussion and resources on matters relating to ethics in the APS, and share information, experience and good practice advice on ethical decision-making. Almost 100 agencies are represented in the network and it is supported by an online discussion forum on GovDex, the Australian Government’s secure, web-based collaborative space.

Meetings of the network are chaired by the Merit Protection Commissioner, and address emerging or ongoing matters of interest to the group. One meeting took place in 2012–13, focusing on the changes to the PS Act—in particular the new APS Values and Employment Principles, and strategies for agencies to embed them into their culture, policies and practices.

Integrity Agencies Group

The Integrity Agencies Group is a network of senior APS leaders in the fields of integrity and ethical decision-making.1 The group is chaired by the Public Service Commissioner and a secretariat is provided by the Merit Protection Commissioner who is also a member.

The focus of the group is twofold:

  • to enhance information sharing, understanding and collaboration across the integrity framework to reinforce an integrated and tailored whole-of-APS approach
  • to recognise and value the experience and specialist knowledge of all members and their contribution to a robust, integrity-based APS.

The group met once in 2012–13.

Guidance for agencies in managing cyber-bullying of employees

Cyber-bullying—the online harassment of employees by clients or members of the public—is an emerging issue for APS employees, associated with increasing use of social media and other online networking tools.

While the incidence of cyber-bullying of APS employees is small (less than 1% of employees reported being cyber-bullied as a result of their APS work2), its impact can be devastating. It is important that this issue be managed well across the APS so that employees who are subject to cyber-bullying receive the support they need, and the problem is dealt with—and prevented—insofar as is practically possible.

In July 2012, the Commission assembled a working group of interested APS agencies3 to discuss how to manage the problem of cyber-bullying of staff by clients or members of the public. The working group met twice during the year (in July and September 2012).

With assistance from the working group and other agencies, the Commission is finalising guidance for agencies to help them manage cyber-bullying of APS employees by members of the public.

The Commission will publish the guidance in the second half of 2013.

Guidance for agencies on selecting an external investigator for Code of Conduct investigations

During the year the Commission progressed a good practice guide that will help APS agencies to select an external investigator to investigate a suspected breach of the APS Code of Conduct. The guide will be made available online. It will provide practical and useful information on matters such as identifying an investigator with the right skills and capabilities to conduct an investigation.

The guidance is expected to be released in the second half of 2013.

Public interest disclosure legislation

The Commission worked with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman and the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security during the year on advice to government on public interest disclosure legislation. The Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013 and the Public Interest Disclosure (Consequential Amendments) Act 2013 were passed by the parliament in July 2013. This new comprehensive legislation repeals the APS whistleblowing provisions in the PS Act and takes effect on 16 January 2014.

Whistleblowing reports and other allegations

The APS whistleblowing scheme provides for APS employees to report alleged breaches of the APS Code of Conduct to their agency head or a person authorised by the agency head. Where an employee is not satisfied with the agency’s response to their report, or in other circumstances (for example, where it is not appropriate for the agency head to deal with the matter), a whistleblowing report may be made to the Public Service Commissioner or the Merit Protection Commissioner.

The Commissioners are supported in this function by delegated staff in the Commission’s Ethics Group.

In 2012–13, the Public Service Commissioner received eight reports. Table 5 shows the number of cases received and finalised. Eight complaints were carried over from 2011–12.

The complaints from public servants concerned failure to follow agency procedures, improper use of position for advantage, preferential treatment in a selection exercise, improper treatment during a misconduct investigation, and allegations of bullying and harassment by managers.

Fourteen matters were finalised in 2012–13, including seven of the eight matters carried over from the previous year. Table 5 also shows the action taken by the Commissioner in response to these cases. The seven completed investigations found that there was insufficient evidence to warrant recommending an investigation into an alleged breach of the Code of Conduct. In three other cases the employees were advised to refer the matter to the relevant agency head or elsewhere for investigation. Four reports were invalid as the person seeking to lodge the report was not an APS employee.

While the number of whistleblowing reports lodged is low, the reports often concern complex interpersonal matters and the issues can take a long time to assess.

The Commissioner also handled 22 reports (under subsections 41(1)(f) and (d) of the PS Act then in force) of allegations against agency heads made by APS employees and members of the public, including three carried over from 2011–12. Nineteen reports were finalised in 2012–13, including the three on hand at the start of the year. Of these finalised cases, only one report warranted starting an inquiry. That inquiry was discontinued as the Commissioner concluded that there was insufficient public interest in pursuing the matter. Three reports of allegations were withdrawn or the complainant failed to respond to correspondence after the legislative framework was explained to them. Three reports were on hand at the end of the year.

Table 5: Whistleblowing reports received by the Public Service Commissioner, 2011–12 and 2012–13
  2011–12 2012–13
Number of reports
On hand at start of reporting period 10 8
Received 8 8
Finalised 9 14
On hand at end of reporting period 9 2
Source of reports
Current APS employees 7 3
Former APS employees 1 2
Action by Commissioner
Referred to agency head for consideration 7 2
Investigated under whistleblowing powers 1 7
No further action or referred elsewhere 1 5
Last reviewed: 
11 May 2018