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Absence of ethics in the public service

By Noel Preston - posted Thursday, 21 July 2005

Of course there is a "public service", just as there is a Santa Claus. Both are real as long as they are credible. And when we lose faith in either institution, we lose out as a society.

Faith in the public sector as a public service is once again under assault. Tony Morris's health inquiry is revealing the sad saga of individual public officials who have avoided personal responsibility by hiding behind an insensitive system.

A few weeks ago Premier Peter Beattie put the state's bureaucrats on notice for failing to pass on vital information to ministers, even though it's widely acknowledged that the political culture of government is too focused on blame-shifting and the suppression of bad news.


There are signs that grievances are bubbling up all over the place, while complaints procedures are too often subverted.

Legitimate concerns about integrity within the public sector are not confined to Queensland. The Palmer Report into the Cornelia Rau case contains damning criticisms of administration in the Commonwealth Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, while also reporting gross incompetence on behalf of its officials.

At the same time, the Howard Government has sent a mixed message about responsibility and accountability through the ranks of the public service by rewarding the head of that department, Bill Farmer, with an important ambassadorial post.

Of course the great bulk of public officials in all jurisdictions pursue their work with diligence and care, but at senior and significant levels there are signs that the integrity of public service is being degraded. The contemporary public service lacks luminary and exemplary leadership like that of "Nugget" Coombs, who served governments of all persuasions, while the wisdom of an illustrious administrator of a previous era, R.S. Parker, may sound quaint.

Parker exhorted public officials to embody a "sense of public responsibility" predicated on "the willingness of administrative leaders to advise their political superiors freely and frankly, even obstinately - in short (with) an official conscience".

In the name of political responsiveness over the past couple of decades, too many public officials second-guess the advice that their political masters wish to hear - especially as incumbent governments become more entrenched. A public service culture of defensiveness, blame-shifting and lacking personal responsibility results. Public servants find their complex role compromised as they are caught between competing lines of accountability.


In Queensland it is time to revisit and reinvigorate the Public Sector Ethics Act and redeem the role of a strong, independent Public Service Commissioner, whose functions have been rather diluted in recent years.

Constant reform is needed to provide a context in which public officials can perform their roles not only effectively but ethically as well. Rejigging the system within public sector organisations will only produce the cultural reforms necessary when rearrangements take seriously the purposes for which the public sector exists: to meet the needs of the community it serves, not the ambitions of public officials, nor even the political interests of the governing party.

After all, it is the community which entrusts the public sector with power.

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First published in The Courier-Mail on July 18, 2005.

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About the Author

Dr Noel Preston is Adjunct Professor in the Griffith University Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance. He is the author of Understanding Ethics (20O1, Federation Press, Sydney), and several texts on public sector ethics. His web page can be found here.

Noel Preston’s recent book is Beyond the Boundary: a memoir exploring ethics, politics and spirituality (Zeus Publications).

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