Good intentions are not enough: building the infrastructure to support ethical leadership

Dr Paul Grimes

Establishing a robust infrastructure of practical systems, processes and procedures will help public sector leaders build ethical cultures and provide a strong framework to support decision making when confronted with ethical challenges, says Dr Paul Grimes, Victoria’s Public Sector Commissioner. In this special feature, Dr Grimes outlines the steps public sector leaders can take to establish the infrastructure to support ethical conduct.

 At some point early in the career of every public sector leader there will come a time when they are confronted by a significant ethical challenge for the first time: how to handle that complex people problem; how to navigate through a procurement process with suppliers with whom they may have pre-existing professional or personal relationships; how to manage the various dimensions of a sensitive regulatory or policy process that may be heavily contested between political parties or interest groups.

Often a decision will be required quickly, and the pressure may be intense.

It's at times like this - when the pressure is on and the best decision may not always be immediately clear - that simply relying on good intentions to carry the day is not enough.

For too long the public sector has relied too heavily on the notion that officials will 'do the right thing' when confronted by ethical challenges. Integrity failures in Victoria in recent years have shown that much greater attention needs to be given to the infrastructure to support, nurture and maintain ethical leadership.

I have chosen the term 'infrastructure' quite deliberately. Most of us immediately understand that creating an ethical culture - a culture that places integrity right at the centre of an organisation's DNA - is the most critical priority for ethical leadership. However, all too often we can gloss over the essential role that very practical organisational systems, processes and procedures play to reinforce and promote an ethical culture.

The infrastructure to support ethical conduct has many dimensions, but I would nominate five as being especially important:

  1. Clearly established standards and expectations around behaviours.
  2. Systems and processes that promote transparency and encourage a proactive approach to reporting, particularly of suspected corruption.
  3. Organisational approaches that embrace and facilitate external scrutiny.
  4. Practical systems to support managers and staff to seek support and guidance when confronted with difficult decisions.
  5. Training.

There are five associated questions that public sector organisations might consider to determine, at a very practical level, whether they have robust infrastructure to support and promote ethical leadership.

  1. Are the standards and expectations of staff clearly documented? 
    Integrity and probity are at the very heart of the public sector code of conduct under the Public Administration Act 2004. This overarching requirement must be supported by clear and well communicated internal guidance, particularly around conflicts of interest. It is not enough to rely simply on high level value statements and guidance. It is critical that staff and leaders at all levels clearly know and understand the various ways in which conflicts of interest can arise and how they should be addressed.

  2. Does the organisation maintain practices that promote transparency and encourage a proactive disclosure culture? 
    Unethical practices are more likely to take hold in organisations that shun transparency and have internal cultures that are closed and defensive. Leaders have an obligation to actively support approaches that embrace transparency and facilitate reporting. In Victoria, there is an obligation on all public sector Principal Officers to ensure that suspected corruption is reported to IBAC. Organisations across the Victorian Public Sector should embrace this mechanism very actively, and not take a restrictive view of what might constitute suspected corruption. Proactive disclosure is an essential practice, irrespective of whether subsequent investigation may determine that corrupt activity has not actually occurred.

  3. Do they adopt approaches that embrace and welcome external scrutiny? 
    It is sometimes said that 'sunlight is the best disinfectant'. Ethical approaches are more likely to flourish in cultures that embrace transparency and do not reflexively seek to avoid external scrutiny.

  4. Do they actively support managers and staff, particularly in practical ways, to seek support and guidance when confronted with difficult decisions? 
    One of the most powerful strategies to ensure ethical decision making in complex, ambitious and high pressure situations, is to give decision makers ready access to sources of support and guidance, either internally (say, from experienced colleagues) or externally. 'Phone a friend' might seem like a simple and obvious strategy, but it can be very easy for organisations to overlook the very practical ways in which they might encourage approaches that encourage the seeking of advice. Strategies that help avoid unnecessarily hasty decision making can be especially important – a 'move fast and break things' mindset can be quite corrosive in many public sector situations. Moreover, systems and approaches that combat any perceptions that asking for help is a sign of weakness are particularly valuable.

  5. Training 
    It can be all too easy for leaders to adopt a 'tick the box' mentality and declare that their training systems support ethical decision making on the basis that, here and there, they contain a few modules with the right titles. However, organisations that seek to achieve high ethical standards must ensure that they are prepared to ask hard questions about their training systems: do they genuinely equip their staff at all levels to always do the right thing, especially in high pressure situations? The best systems and process are of little use unless they are properly communicated and staff know how they are to be executed. 

Dr Paul Grimes was appointed Victorian Public Sector Commissioner in January 2018. A career public servant, Dr Grimes previously served as Secretary of the Australian Government Department of Agriculture and, earlier, Secretary of the Australian Government Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. Prior to his appointment as an Australian Government departmental secretary, Dr Grimes held senior appointments in several Commonwealth and state government departments, including as Associate Secretary (Domestic Policy) in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet; Deputy Secretary in the Australian Government Department of Finance; Deputy Secretary in the South Australian Department of Treasury and Finance; and Chief Executive of the ACT Department of Treasury.