The expression ‘above board’ originated in the world of gambling, where card players were required to keep their cards above the level of the playing table to avoid any suspicion of cheating.
It is now a term synonymous with processes that are legitimate, honest, open and accountable. One function of public administration that requires very high levels of honesty and accountability is the operation of government boards and committees.
In South Australia there are around 200 boards, committees, panels, governing councils, advisory councils, trusts, tribunals, commissions and authorities.
These bodies are diverse in terms of their functions, form, size, level of responsibility and accountability. They range from statutory authorities or government business enterprises to advisory boards and regulatory bodies.
Members of these bodies are drawn from the community or professional groups, and many are required by legislation to possess certain skills or qualifications in the areas over which the board presides. The vast majority of public sector boards and committees are overseen by the Department of Premier and Cabinet who issue them with policies and guidelines, provide guidance and advice, arrange for their members’ remuneration, and administer the production of government statistics and reports from these bodies. Many board members are volunteers.
Neither the scope nor the power of public sector boards should be underestimated. They work with government in a wide range of capacities, advising Ministers on key issues, managing public assets and cultural institutions, and overseeing health, education, economic and environmental programs and services.
Public sector boards are a useful way for governments to utilise the expertise and knowledge of people in the community, as well as giving interested community members a voice and stake in government decision making and policy. However, public sector boards and committees are also one of the primary areas where private interests and employment arrangements can come into conflict with public services and purposes.
Many people who are appointed to public sector boards are appointed precisely because they have relevant affiliations, connections, personal expertise or business interests within an area of government focus or activity. Upon appointment, many, if not most, of these community members become public officers. Then they are required to ensure their private interests, businesses and employment arrangements do not improperly influence their public duties as a board member.
With so many boards requiring members with expertise and skills relevant to the boards’ work and functions, it is almost inevitable that conflicts of interest will arise for board members. It is quite predictable that members of the community will perceive there to be conflicts of interest among members of boards, even where they have been properly identified, disclosed and managed. To address any conflicts of interest, boards and committees should keep good records of conflict of interest declarations by members, as well as the strategies adopted to remove or mitigate any conflicts.
The existence of such large numbers of public sector boards and committees gives rise to risks of improper interaction between public administration and the myriad interests of the private sector. Managing the many conflicts of interest that must emerge at such an interface is a delicate balancing act. Public sector boards and committees require strong and sound supervision to ensure that any conflicts of interest are identified, declared and managed.