Corruption, decency and probity advice

Corruption and probity are hot topics in Australia’s public sector. Even a cursory glance at recent cases brought before corruption watchdogs shows this.

The long running stories and court cases that follow have become a staple of national news bulletins. Any time a state asset is built, sold or disposed of, there are serious questions to be asked.

Probity – which is a corporate noun for ethics or honesty and decency – has established its place in the architecture of technical services that assess, assure and measure high-risk public sector projects. Probity advising and auditing is crucial when how a project is executed is just as important as any intended outcome.

As the line separating public and private sector accountabilities becomes less clear, non-government actors are increasingly looking to probity professionals to help ensure – and show – integrity in their dealings. However, before doing so it is important the probity professionals themselves improve the integrity of their process and gain a more sophisticated understanding of ethical frameworks.

Probity services are provided both by large accounting firms and a growing band of smaller boutique operators. Probity plans (documents that set out how the project will be run to ensure the integrity of the process) are now a mandatory requirement for many public projects.

Probity professionals use a number of lenses to monitor and promote ethical decision making in execution, typically through the following fundamentals:

Value for money: Was the market tested adequately to ensure an organisation was achieving the most competitive result, which made the best use of resources?

Conflicts of interest and impartiality: Were processes in place to manage any actual, perceived or potential conflicts of interests?

Accountability and transparency: Was an auditable trail maintained to provide evidence of the integrity of the process? Was enough information made available to promote confidence – for example, were selection criteria and time lines for decision making adequately communicated?

Confidentiality: When sensitive information from stakeholders is received, such as private or business-in-confidence information, was there a process in place to identify and protect this information?

The growth of probity services over the last 30 years undoubtedly reflects their ability to add value to projects. However, over that same period there has been concern that practitioners have at times diminished, rather than promoted, probity fundamentals. Some of the critical factors include:

  • Relying too heavily on compliance monitoring at the expense of ethical considerations
  • Allowing their duties to be too narrowly defined by clients
  • Lacking the confidence to challenge impropriety
  • Allowing themselves to be “shopped” (much like “legal advice shopping,” clients can go from one probity advisor to another until they get the advice they want).

There is also concern that public sector agencies can overuse these services, having the effect of “contracting out” their probity obligations in their regular operations.

To some extent these are symptoms of the unregulated nature of probity services. There are no formal qualifications required for probity advisors and auditors and no professional standard governing them.

Their difference from traditional audits or investigations has led to some misunderstanding of their role and judgements which can lead to unfair criticism of probity professionals, but also to exploitation by both clients and probity practitioners.

To tackle these problems and prepare for a broader role in guiding business dealings, probity practitioners need to acknowledge their own industry’s need for an ethical framework and an increasingly robust standard for professional practice.

This framework would acknowledge their implied obligation to society to be more than a mere compliance check, and, on behalf of the average Joe on the street, to be the one in the room to ask a simple pub test question: after all the boxes have been ticked, does it look and sound like an ethical process?

To do this the profession needs to imagine its duty in broader terms than self-interest or the interest of clients, but to society in general, in line with other professions tasked with acting in the public interest.

For some time, probity professionals have used policy documents such as the NSW Code of Practice for Procurement to gauge the ethical performance of government projects. However, as their duty and work expands to different sectors and in line with changing community expectations, they will need to be able to identify the ethical frameworks peculiar to those sectors and to the organisations they are commissioned by.

Used effectively, an ethical framework is the foundation of an organisation’s culture.

When requested to provide probity related advice, The Ethics Centre includes the ethical framework amongst its list of fundamentals. This allows our clients to do more than tick boxes. It allows them to assess whether they have lived up to their ethical obligations, the values they proport to uphold and their promise to the community.

In a world in which trust is in deficit, these are important skills to have.

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Should large scale projects undergo an ethics test?