Practical perspectives on building corruption resilient culture - an interview with Fran Thorn

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Facilitator: Hello. Welcome to the latest IBAC podcast. Today we are talking with Fran Thorn, who leads the public sector and health care practice at Deloitte. Fran, as a former departmental secretary, is a public policy expert and a recognised leader in the design and delivery of large scale service systems in Government. Today Fran will reflect on her experiences and responsibilities as a public sector leader and the importance of public sector agencies having robust integrity systems. Good morning Fran.

Interviewee: Good morning.

Facilitator: Fran, we hear a lot about the importance of culture in discussions about integrity issues. What does it take to build a corruption resistant culture in an organisation?

Interviewee: That’s a very good question, and a very hard one, and one in which you often don’t know the answer until you've seen the worst. But, what we do know is that being both integrity alert and corruption alert - so the positive and the negative of that is really important when you're thinking about the culture you want to achieve for the organisation.  So, being conscious of the need for people to behave with integrity, to make decisions with integrity and to think about their public purpose and the importance of integrity in preserving trust in the public purpose of the public service.

So, I prefer to think about it from a positive sense and thinking about how you are aware of it. Then, when you look to the negative side of integrity - which, of course, is the presence of corruption - you also need to be aware that this can happen. One of the issues, I think, that the public service faces is that it has relied upon a set of values which many leaders in the public service have felt we all shared. 

I was one of those who felt we all shared those values and that they didn’t need much articulation, that they were part of what it meant to be a public service. So, that would seem to me to be part of the building of a culture, which is to take those values and to be very explicit about them and what they mean around integrity as part of your culture.

Then the other issues, generally, about culture also apply when it comes to integrity. There are the things of behaviour at the top, or ‘tone from the top’ as it's sometimes called. If the most senior people in the organisation are not perceived to be behaving with integrity, or in a way that is consistent with what people would generally understand to be integrity, then don’t be surprised if the rest of the organisation starts to fail a bit on that. That’s the issue of awareness, the awareness of leaders, of their role in modelling good behaviours and thinking of integrity as part of that.

Then there is a critical element of it, the very explicit processes that are around building and understanding what integrity means in both action and behaviours. Building it into everything from recruitment, induction, promotion, so all the life cycle of a public servant, but also the processes that you have in place in the organisation to observe for and act on rapidly, anything that looks like it transgresses integrity.

If people can see both leadership, process and a very, very clear articulation of what integrity is and are able to connect and observe it in action, then you're more likely to see it built into your culture. The first thing is to be aware of it, to be very explicit about it as something you want to achieve, and don’t assume - as I think too many of us did - that it was an innate value of being a public servant. You have to be very explicit about it.

Facilitator: Are there any issues that public sector leaders need to be particularly vigilant about?

Interviewee: That is a tricky one. It's hard to narrow it down to one or two things, or to say that we know exactly what it is to look for, because if we did, we wouldn’t have problems with integrity. I will probably keep going back to this issue of being alert to the opportunities for breaches of integrity in your organisation. And so as part of your leadership - in the same way as you build good systems to ensure the organisation is good at advising the minister and the Government and creating policy, good at implementing policy, has HR systems that are around building strength and diversity and good practice.

You build the same kinds of systems around integrity, and you weave them into your other systems, so that it's as important to have integrity in the design of public policy as it is in your HR practices. It's something that’s part of everything we do. That issue of alertness and conscious action around integrity is something that, as public sector leaders, there needs to be, I think, a lot more thought about.

Facilitator: Together with awareness and leadership you've spoken about the importance of having systems and processes in place. What processes can an organisation put in place to ensure staff are providing the right information to public sector heads so that leaders can be properly advised on corruption issues?

Interviewee: There are a range of processes that one is required to have in place under the various acts that surround us. They're a good start, but they're not everything because it is keeping alive in the organisation - and all the way through the layers of leadership in the organisation, the idea that integrity is part of your daily business and it needs to imbue all your actions.

Equally, those who have been put in place to monitor for and actively work throughout the organisation to manage for the maintenance of integrity, they need to have easy access to the leadership. Part of your processes that’s important to do is to both make those who have a formal responsibility for integrity - in addition to all of the leadership - to understand that surfacing issues around integrity, and concerns about breaches to integrity and having access and availability of the most senior leaders to hear that, is really important.

Sometimes they behave in a way that makes you think that they think they're senior leaders are omniscient, but they're not. I don’t think I'm revealing any great secrets here when I say that, but they need to be told. They will not see everything that’s happening in an organisation. As part of the process that issue of access and giving people the belief that it's their right and responsibility to take issues as far in the organisation as they can where they're concerned about breaches of integrity.

Equally, seeking to have conversations with the leadership about what processes have been put in place, what monitoring is in place and, one hopes, telling the good story about how organisational behaviours and integrities are, in fact, being maintained. It's not just about when there are breaches, but having conversations about the extent to which you're building integrity resilient organisations and having regular conversations about that.

Building into your formal processes access to leadership is something that I think - I can say, without exception, that all my former colleagues would want to believe that their staff feel free to come and speak to them on issues of integrity and ways in which - to give them advice on ways in which - through their behaviours and actions - they can, in fact, be strengthening the otherwise more formal processes you might have in the organisation.

Facilitator: As a former public sector leader who's now working in the private sector, what are your observations on how the landscape has changed with regards to corruption vigilance? Have you seen much improvement?

Interviewee: I'd love to be able to say yes. I think I've seen much more alertness. We probably all became, I think, a little bit - you could say complacent. I'm not sure that complacent is the right word, but lost a sense of alertness to the possibility of corruption in the public sector. I often feel that it does go back to this belief that we thought we all shared, the values of public service, which include a very strong sense of the necessity for integrity in action and behaviour in the public service.

There was a failure to be alert and aware of the fact that corruption was not only possible, it was probable. This is fairly shocking for any of us to have to think about, that we do work, very likely, with colleagues who may seek to behave in ways that are corrupt. Most of us don’t really want to think about that because it's saying something about one's colleagues. That’s hard at a personal and professional level.

There was, I think, a failure - and there's been some very significant failures in the last couple of years of integrity, but I don’t want to pick those organisations out because it's very unlikely that there isn’t an organisation in the public sector where there hasn’t been some failure in integrity in the last five years or so.

Some of those might seem very minor compared to other cases which have got a lot of publicity, but minor isn’t minor if it goes unnoticed. What is minor can rapidly become much more major. So, I think what's happened is there's been a big shock. There has been a lot of activity, and there is a greater level of alertness to the possibility of corruption and other forms of failure of integrity that exist.

Going forward, what will be interesting to observe is whether that vigilance is maintained. There's a very heightened sense of vigilance at the moment, but the real test will be the extent to which that vigilance does get maintained in a way that keeps us fresh in thinking about integrity and its black side, which is corruption because it's not going to be the same in every organisation and the opportunities are different from organisation to organisation.

If we do get organisations being more active in thinking about the risk of corruption and actually building that into what might be their otherwise more standard risk processes and saying that corruption is a risk for us as an organisation and thinking about the ways in which corruption may be activated in their organisation and where are the points where corruption will be more likely than not, then I think we will have achieved a greater awareness and greater action on it. It is, again, people remaining open to the idea that they may be working with people who will behave badly.

Not all corruption starts as what we would see as an overtly corrupt act. It's often a set of small behaviours that seem okay. Nobody really pays much attention, and they start to become systematised in a way that really multiplies their effect and you see people building a culture which starts to be one that allows very, very serious corruption to exist.

Facilitator: You’ve spoken about the importance of building awareness, the challenges around maintaining vigilance and also the difficulties in coming to terms with the fact that you may have colleagues engaging in problematic or corrupt behaviour. What other challenges do you think face Victoria in the future in building corruption resilience in our public sector?

Interviewee: The way the public service operates has been very stable, or very consistent, for a long time. It's almost like a village within a village. It's a group of people who come together for common purpose who work to support a government and to deliver valuable services to the public. It's often felt very internal. It's a world that also gets a lot of scrutiny. Because there is a lot of external scrutiny - because you are constantly being watched by people, both from within the institutions of the public sector, but equally from outside the public sector. Anyone out there who has a voice, either formal or informal, is able to comment on public sector behaviour.

That element has really intensified. Along with that is the idea that you see much more commonly in some other areas of work where there's much more engagement with the consumers of services or products in the development of design and that, so in a world in which third parties - people generally think of the media, but social media allows a much broader range of people to comment on public sector actions and the specific actions of individual public servants - and the idea that we would engage much more actively with the clients of public services to design, develop, deliver and rethink those services, along with the use of third parties - so not for profits, or the private sector - in the design and delivery of those services means that you've got a much more mixed environment than the olden days that people often think about, where the only people Ministers ever listened to were the public service. That’s gone forever.

Understanding that mixed model - not just for purposes of delivery of services, but understanding how much more complicated that makes for your integrity - or, indeed, your corruption environment - that’s something, I think, that is new and will become a much more important feature of people's thinking about the risks to integrity or the risks of corruption. That it's not just something that might be contained to your own organisation, and the bits that you're formally responsible for - which are going to have a whole lot of other parties - both - either observing you or active in your work - where understanding how you build integrity resilience and anti-corruption measures across that disparate landscape, is the challenge for us all.

Facilitator: And quite a challenge it is. Did you have any closing thoughts or messages for leaders in the public sector for whom integrity is on their radar, but who might be seeking to strengthen their organisation's approach?

Interviewee: The strongest point I would want to make is to be aware. That doesn’t mean you spend your whole day feeling anxious about - that there is some corrupt activity taking place under your nose and it's about to be outed and it'll be terrible, but to be aware that corruption can exist in your organisation or in the organisations that form part of the network that you operate with, and that you need to be as consistent about how you go about thinking of that as a possibility as you might be in how you go about thinking about good employment practices or good policy development practices or good day-to-day advice to the Minister. The sorts of things that you put in place to strengthen that in your organisation become part of the thinking of the strengthening of integrity and anti-corruption activities. Try and make it a day-to-day thing rather than something that you pay a lot of attention to when it emerges and is brought to your attention, or as a once a year thing when you're doing a risk analysis, or something like that.

It's to make it part of your way of doing business so that it becomes part of the organisation and how the organisation - and individuals within that organisation - behave, and that you, as part of the culture you're building up around it, create a culture where it's okay to raise issues, even if those issues turn out to be misunderstandings or overblown, or incorrect even. It is okay to raise it. It is better to raise it than not to raise it. People should be acknowledged and respected for raising issues, because that’s what you want.

You want an environment where people feel safe to say “I don’t think that’s right”, and to at least have a conversation about it. Make it part of your business.

Facilitator: Fran, thanks so much for your time today. It's an important reminder for people at all levels of the public sector to speak out against corruption and to build organisations that resist corruption.

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