Part 2: Understanding integrity: Related terms – probity and ethics

Integrity issues have received considerable media attention in recent times, at both the federal and state/territory levels. While the focus has mainly been on politicians and senior public servants, applicants for public service roles need to stay current on integrity-related developments.

Understanding integrity explores this subject in five articles:

Several parts provide additional resources for further guidance.

Part 2: Probity and ethics

Probity is a term often used in relation to both integrity and ethics.

Probity is linked to procurement, tender processes, and government purchasing. The Australian National Audit Office defines probity as: ‘the evidence of ethical behaviour, and can be defined as complete and confirmed integrity, uprightness and honesty in a particular process’.

The Department of Finance explores ethics and probity in procurement. This advice covers principles, practice, conflicts of interest, rules, risks and traps. Applicants for roles linked to tenders, procurement, government purchasing need to know and understand this material.


The Ethics Centre states that: ‘Ethics defines the best option as the one which best achieves what is good, right and consistent with the nature of the things in question. At The Ethics Centre, we refer to these as ‘values’, ‘principles’ and ‘purpose’.

Further, the centre states: ‘Ethics is the process of questioning, discovering and defending our values, principles and purpose. It’s about finding out who we are and staying true to that in the face of temptations, challenges and uncertainty.’

For public service professionals, there are specific values, principles, practices and laws that set the standard of behaviour expected and inform ethical decision making. Being ethical is one of the APS values. An APSC guide, written in 2018 and updated in 2021, is structured around three professional relationships in public service work: relationships with the Government and the Parliament; with the public; and with public service colleagues.

Acting with integrity and making ethical decisions, is not always simple or straightforward. Paragraph 1.2.9 of the guide states:

‘When working with the Government, to uphold this Value [Ethical] employees should act in the right way, as well as the technically and legally correct way. The ‘right decision’ or the ‘right action’, depending on context, is likely to require having regard to the intent of a relevant law or policy. In practice this means employees need to understand the reasons for the law or the policy. The more senior the employee, the greater the expectation that they will have this understanding.’

This means applicants need to have a knowledge and understanding of the scope of integrity and ethical issues, and be able to articulate the complexities of their decision making. Part of the career-related records you keep needs to be notes about your experiences dealing with potential or actual ethical issues, relevant professional development you’ve undertaken to deepen your understanding of ethical issues and how to deal with them.

Advice about ethical issues can be sought from:

  • specific policies and guidance provided by your department/agency.
  • the HR area
  • the Australian Public Service Commission’s Ethics Advisory Service
  • the APS Academy
  • a supervisor or a trusted colleague.

In addition to understanding ethical behaviour as a public servant, applicants may also need to consider ethical issues related to the subject of policies and programs. For example, bioethics is the study of the ethical issues raised by advances in the biological and medical sciences. Any research that involves humans or animals has ethical considerations. Design and use of technology, such as artificial intelligence, involves a range of ethical issues. Building design and contracting is another area where problems arise.

Resources on ethics

APSC Ethics Advisory Service

APSC REFLECT decision-making model

This model helps you ‘recognise and work through ethical issues and dilemmas within the framework of the APS Values, Employment Principles, and Code of Conduct’. It comprises:

  • Recognise a potential problem or issue.
  • Find relevant information.
  • Linger at the ‘fork in the road’.
  • Evaluate the options.
  • Come to a decision.
  • Take time to reflect.

The Ethics Centre articles, videos, podcasts, and courses

The APS Academy

APSC integrity resources on Values and the Code of Conduct

The Mandarin’s Tuesday Ethics Club

Specific ethical issues are discussed in each article, providing practical and readily understandable advice and explanations. For example:

Part 3 looks at how people can demonstrate integrity.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.