Ensuring public sector integrity during times of crisis

IBAC CEO Marlo Baragwanath

By IBAC CEO Marlo Baragwanath

How can the public sector safeguard integrity during times of crisis? This question has dominated much of our thinking at IBAC over recent months, as it has across the public sector and integrity agencies throughout Australia.

The current COVID-19 pandemic, following so closely after the disastrous bushfires last summer, is having an unprecedented impact as our public sector works to meet community expectations and demands for vital public services. Significant funding and other measures are being progressively announced and implemented by all levels of government in response to the pandemic, in addition to funding committed for bushfire recovery. Experience tells us that changes to the way government services are delivered during times of crisis can create or heighten misconduct and corruption risks.

The need to respond in a timely manner, coupled with remote work arrangements and pressing demands, present new opportunities and risks for corruption. IBAC is conscious of the pressures facing the public sector, particularly for stretched frontline services. Yet, this is no time to ‘drop the ball’ – we must ensure integrity underpins all decisions and that focus remains firmly on acting in the public interest.

IBAC has prepared two information sheets on building public sector integrity during times of crisis or emergency for state and local government. These resources highlight the following corruption risks for the public sector, and measures that can be taken to mitigate them.

Crisis-related demands and pressure on public sector employees

Crisis-related funding can lead to changed conditions that, in turn, intensify existing fraud and corruption risks. Key risks typically stem from increases in collaboration between public and private sectors to address impacts of the crisis. Employees should pay particular attention to corruption warning signs and prevention measures when undertaking processes related to procurement, recruitment, grant assessment and acquittal, payment of public funds and resource management.

Risks associated with working remotely

Working from home increases privacy and security risks to public sector employees, including inadvertently discussing or exposing information to un-vetted individuals, either in person, via social media or other electronic means. Cyber threats also pose an active risk to remote workforces. Cybercriminals have increased their use and adaptation of malicious online strategies to exploit work from home conditions. These strategies include phishing emails, malicious websites and SMS messaging that seek to obtain private information, disguised as COVID‑19‑related communication.

The crisis has also potentially placed public sector employees and their families under financial hardship. Remote working can create a sense of isolation, and reduce capacity of support from team members. If these issues are left undiscussed and unaddressed, they can increase employee vulnerability to corruption and fraud.

Risks to governance processes and oversight

Following correct and transparent processes remains as important as ever now. Government agencies are under pressure to deliver services, with less opportunities for face-to-face interaction while doing so. Under these conditions, public sector employees may feel pressure to take shortcuts to accelerate delivery. This could be as simple as reducing or stopping routine consultations with stakeholders and experts. However, this can lead to increased risks of reduced documentation of decision‑making, nepotism, lack of public transparency, and overall poorer decisions being made. Although virtual meeting platforms offer opportunities to promote public engagement, public sector employees should ensure transparency by documenting and making clear records of meetings – be they virtual or face-to-face – and continuing to declare and manage conflicts of interests.

Supporting corruption‑resistant cultures during crises

The need to provide strong leadership and integrity-related training to the workforce remains crucial during times of crisis and emergency response. There is a risk that agency‑based integrity education initiatives may be sidelined in favour of service delivery during this period. However, it is vital that training and emphasis on accountability continues and that all leaders encourage and enable their staff to maintain the highest standards of integrity and professionalism.

Increased lobbying-related risks

Agencies should be vigilant about advocacy and lobbying during times of crisis and avoid real or perceived conflicts of interest in these situations, by adhering to public sector policies and standards. Although lobbying and advocacy are valid democratic activities that can be conducted professionally and legitimately, any efforts to accelerate decision‑making or conduct undisclosed lobbying can decrease transparency and place pressure on probity measures.

For more on this topic, please see IBAC's information sheet resources, including Building public sector integrity during times of crisis or emergency for State and local government and The red flags of corruption.

Listen to a webinar hosted by IBAC and the Institute of Public Administration Australia (Victoria) Safeguarding integrity during COVID-19, via the IPAA Victoria members' portal.