Conflicts of interest are possibly the most misunderstood concept in public administration. Too many public officers do not know what they are, do not know when they have one and if they do, they rarely know what to do about it.

In the broader community, conflicts of interest are sometimes associated with corrupt practices. Although this can be true, in the vast majority of instances conflicts of interest are simply an inevitable outcome of our professional employment and interconnected lives. The problem is not necessarily the existence of the conflict but in what happens (or does not happen) next.

What is a conflict of interest?

A conflict of interest is where the personal interests of a public officer come into conflict with, or could be perceived as coming into conflict with, their professional duties and responsibilities.

A conflict that is perceived can be just as damaging to a person or agency’s reputation as a conflict that is real or actual.

In determining whether you might be perceived as having a conflict you should apply the ‘reasonable person’ test. This refers to whether or not a ‘fair and reasonable’ person might perceive you as having one.

What is the problem?

If conflicts of interests are not appropriately dealt with, the integrity of public administration will come into question and the community may lose confidence in it.

Poorly managed conflicts of interest can undermine important functions like recruitment, procurement, issuing licences and qualifications, grants, sponsorship and program funding, and engagement of consultants and contractors.

How should conflicts be managed?

There are numerous codes, pieces of legislation, regulations and policies that set out how particular kinds of public officers should deal with conflicts of interest, but the overarching principle is that they should be identified, disclosed and managed.

The onus is on all public officers to understand what they are required to do should a conflict of interest arise for them.

Poorly managed conflicts of interest are at the core of many complaints and reports received by the Office for Public Integrity (OPI) and investigations undertake by the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption (ICAC).

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