The nature and purpose of a government agency determines the corruption risks that it is exposed to.
Over the last two decades, there has been a significant shift in the general nature and purpose of public administration, and this has affected the integrity landscape.
Many parts of public administration no longer resemble the traditional government department with hierarchical and fixed bureaucracies. They are often now configured in more flexible, distributed and ‘entrepreneurial’ ways. This can of course bring benefits but it can also come with deficits in supervision, transparency and accountability.
Program administration and service delivery exclusively through government agencies is no longer the norm, with many services, programs and functions now outsourced. Similarly the appetite for government departments to engage contractors and consultants to devise or guide major public policy or programs seems to be expanding.
Some government agencies are almost exclusively industry focused and better understood as ‘enablers’ or market participants than traditional service providers.
The dividing line between the public and private sphere is more porous than ever before. Many government agencies now operate within networks involving private businesses, not-for-profit organisations, industry associations and advocacy groups.
The increased blurring of public and private sectors can often be accompanied by complex funding arrangements and multiple funding sources. The increased blurring of sectors also creates conditions where close associations and conflicts of interest more readily arise.
Many public agencies are now obliged to operate in markets whose complexity sometimes challenges the resources and skills available. More and more public officials require skills in procurement, contract management, negotiation, finance and commerce. More work needs to be done to ensure that agencies possess these necessary skills at the levels and in the areas where they are currently required.
The massive increase in the amount and value of data is also challenging government agencies’ ability to manage and protect those resources.
Some areas of public administration will likely remain traditional service areas of government, such as police, courts, treasury, emergency services, infrastructure, transport, and the like.
Other traditional domains of public administration, such as health and education, while remaining largely customary in their mode of service delivery, have nonetheless experienced significant decentralisation of their governance in recent years. Individual education sites have been given greater autonomy in their own management and finances, and geographically dispersed local health networks are now governed by separate boards.
Some government agencies essentially operate as ‘enablers’ or ‘generators’ of economic activity. Rather than providing traditional government services, agencies like the South Australian Tourism Commission, Defence SA, Renewal SA, Green Industries SA and even the Department of Innovation and Skills operate more as supporters, collaborators, or investments partners of various industries. In some cases, departments will take on dual roles as both advocates and regulators of industry, like the Department of Energy and Mining. Such a focus often urges a more entrepreneurial and commercial approach than has traditionally been seen in the public service.
Other government departments which once traditionally delivered services using in-house resources and administered agency-driven programs now outsource a great deal of their functions to the private and non-for-profit sector. The Department of Human Services and Department of Child Protection are two prominent examples of this shift.
Other public services are delivered and managed by public corporations, such as TAFE SA and SA Water, and operate in more customer-focused and market-driven environments.
In short, the reality of modern public administration is far more varied in its scope and purposes than it was even a generation ago, and that marked increase in scale, complexity and orientation has created different integrity challenges.
The idea of a one-dimensional ‘public servant’ or ‘government bureaucracy’ no longer holds true, and accordingly there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to ensuring integrity in public administration. Each unit of public administration must tailor its corruption awareness and controls to the circumstances of its operating environments.
While it is likely that most government agencies have sound understanding of their unique roles and functions, it may be case that public authorities and their public officers have not extended this understanding to the specific corruption risks of those roles and functions.
For instance, all public officers are potential targets for grooming and bribery. But how do such risks unfold for correctional officers in a prison setting, as opposed to an industry liaison officer meeting with executives for international defence companies? Likewise, for all public officers there is the opportunity to abuse their public office, but how might a magistrate abuse their public office compared to an infrastructure procurement officer, a planning and development official, a nurse or a mining compliance officer?
In the coming months, the Independent Commission Against Corruption will be rolling out a renewed education and prevention program aimed at helping public authorities to identify and assess the specific corruptions risks of their operating environments. I encourage all public authorities and public officers to avail themselves of those opportunities as they become available. But in the meantime, much can be gained by spending a short time analysing and appreciating the distinctive role, purpose and arrangement of your agency, and the corruption risks which may follow.