Putting integrity at the core of how public organisations operate

By Sarah McGray
Principal Policy Advisor – Legal, Policy and Inquiries
Office of the Auditor-General Te Mana Arotake

Sarah McGray

The Office of the Controller and Auditor-General (OAG) has just released an integrity framework for the public sector. The framework is aimed at supporting senior leaders and those in governance roles to deliver on their stewardship responsibility to support the integrity of New Zealand’s public sector.

Given the importance of integrity to public trust in Government and the wider public sector, the Auditor-General, John Ryan, often asks the leaders he meets, “How do you know whether your organisation is operating with integrity?”. The answers are not always clear and in some ways, Mr Ryan thinks this is understandable. Integrity is often assumed. Overall, the New Zealand public sector is one we can be proud of. There is a lot of focus on compliance with laws and policies, and most staff come to work to make a difference.

But managing integrity is not simple. First, we all have a well-honed ability to rationalise behaviours depending on the situation we face, no matter how comprehensive our policies are. We see it in relation to procurement, sensitive expenditure, and employment decisions. While the ends may not justify the means, those ends are often rationalised.

Secondly, everyone sees situations differently. A gift to build a relationship could be seen as a bribe by another person and cultural differences can influence what is seen as appropriate.

In the recently published book HUMANGOOD, the authors found that: 

“the most effective strategy to embed a culture of integrity within the organisation is to combine compliance instruments to control unethical behaviour with an integrity approach to stimulate ethical behaviour. This requires time and reinforcement through multiple parts of the organisation to make it an integral part of the day-to-day decisions, staff behaviours, and the operating environment.”

The OAG’s framework provides an integrated approach to examining the values, systems, and norms in a workplace. It’s about identifying the key activities and ways of working that help to build and sustain integrity across the whole organisation. The framework is accompanied by an interactive tool to help users explore the components of the framework.

At the launch of the framework, Michael Macaulay, Professor of Public Administration at the School of Government, reflected on the achievement and how pleased he was to see an integrity framework for the New Zealand public sector. He said that such frameworks work if individuals and organisations follow the golden rule of taking the space, time, and capacity to reflect on integrity: “Let’s keep talking about it – integrity is not something that you reach and then you stay at. It’s something that needs to be constantly reached.”

The OAG is asking chief executives, leadership teams, and governing boards to consider this framework in the context of their organisations and:

  • assess their organisation against the framework
  • develop a plan and
  • provide the OAG with feedback, so it can keep improving the guidance.

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