Part 4: Understanding integrity: Fostering a pro-integrity culture

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 4: Fostering a pro-integrity culture

A pro-integrity culture involves ‘the embedding of integrity into an agency’s culture, where it is a core consideration of all it does—from the conduct of its individual employees, to its systems and practices’.

The APSC explains that there are three building blocks for a pro-integrity culture:

  • ‘Awareness of the obligations for working professionally and the role and responsibilities of agencies to support APS employees to understand and navigate challenges to ethical decision-making.
  • Capability of APS employees to identify and work through ethical challenges, ensuring they have or can develop the skills to address these integrity concerns.
  • Accountability for decisions and actions at every level, and systems for addressing concerns about employees’ integrity or conduct appropriately and consistently.’

People can therefore promote a culture of integrity through:

  • Leadership and role-modelling
  • Capability development
  • Awareness-raising
  • Communication.

In short, conduct that cultivates a pro-integrity culture refers to ‘a positive, conscious effort to make integrity a central consideration of all activities.’ These activities include complying with legislative frameworks, policies and practices; ethical decision-making; and ensuring organisational systems, policies and practices are ‘purposeful, legitimate and trustworthy’.

The integrity action plan, Louder than words, focuses on three areas for further work: culture, systems, and accountability and is primarily directed at the work of senior executive staff. The first recommendation under culture relates to appointing the right leaders by recruiting people whose behaviour is consistent with the APS Values. (p. 7)  Recruitment questions should aim for SES candidates to demonstrate self-reflection, commitment to inclusive culture-building, and sustainable delivery. (p. 9)

Recommendation 4 is ‘Bolster the capability of the APS to lead with integrity. Focus on ethical decision making and fostering psychological safety’. (p. 11)

Fostering psychological safety

It is worth taking a look at the SES Performance Leadership Framework and the accompanying resources, particularly on psychological safety which is considered a necessary element for building a culture of integrity. As the Psychological Safety Fact Sheet explains, ‘When employees are enabled to provide frank and fearless advice, express concerns, ask questions, or seek help, risks can be identified and managed appropriately’.

This fact sheet goes on to offer ideas on how to foster psychological safety. The SES Performance Leadership Framework discusses questions that could be explored to determine whether an SES staff member is performing well on expected leadership behaviours. This  may be worth considering for insights into how to demonstrate APS Values.

Building trust in public services

Two reports have been published by the APSC on results of surveys of people’s trust in Australian public services. This means agencies that provide services to the public. The results explore trust in, and satisfaction with, these services.

People applying for service delivery roles can gain useful insights from these reports. The 2023 report shows various aspects of services that contribute to satisfaction: the way people are treated by staff, the quality of information provided, service access, service process, and outcome (I got what I wanted.)

Good service delivery relies on a good understanding of what drives trust and satisfaction.

Trust and satisfaction exist in a feedback loop. As the report explains:

‘When people are satisfied with the services they receive, it builds their trust. When people are trusting, there is more institutional legitimacy and compliance with public services. When people interact with services this way, they are more likely to have satisfactory experiences.’ (p. 20)

The report also explains that public trust in services is influenced by other things, such as ‘both the reality and public perception of the interdependence of Australian public services with other public institutions, politics, the economy, culture and society as a whole.’ (p. 12)  Further information can be found in an OECD report on trust and public policy.

The report explains that: ‘trust is negatively associated with experiences of hardship, vulnerability, marginalisation and inequality. … This data [in the report] highlights a fundamental aspect of trust. That is, the greater a person’s vulnerability, the higher the bar is for services to gain that person’s trust.’ (p. 13) Hence the reference to a research paper’s definition of trust as:

‘A psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behaviour of another.’

Service providers’ ability to understand this concept of trust and satisfying delivery of services may have an edge in the job stakes.

The 2023 report shows feedback on 17 public services. This information can be useful for potential applicants interested in these agencies.

Part 5 looks at integrity across other jurisdictions and offers suggestions on potential integrity-related interview questions.

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.