Part 1: Understanding integrity: What is integrity?

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.

Most roles make reference to public service values, with the need to display respect and integrity, and embrace and embody values. Some roles may seek stronger commitments. There are 17 federal integrity departments and agencies that play a role in upholding integrity via awareness, prevention, assurance, investigation, enforcement. An AFP sergeant, for example, needs to demonstrate probity in all aspects of their conduct, and act as a role model, embodying AFP core values.

Three roles advertised at the time of writing (late 2023), further demonstrate strong integrity requirements.

  • An ideal candidate for an Executive Officer (EL 1), with strong compliance responsibilities, at Government House, requires a high level of integrity, confidentiality, and professionalism.
  • Technical Lead (EL 2) roles at the Australian Radioactive Waste Agency require demonstrated understanding of the importance of workplace culture that embraces safety and security and is collaborative and inclusive, and well-developed interpersonal skills that foster trust and cooperation, and a proven ability to work effectively and with integrity within a politically sensitive environment
  • A .NET Developer (APS 6) for the Australian Electoral Commission, which has a strategic focus of electoral integrity, will excel if they have demonstrated personal integrity whilst achieving results within legislative and policy parameters.

Understanding integrity explores this subject in five articles:

Several parts provide additional resources for further guidance.

Part 1: What is integrity?

As the SA ICAC points out: ‘It can be tempting to view integrity simply as the lack of wrong doing. If no-one is doing the wrong thing, then we have integrity. However, integrity in public administration is more complicated’.

In general terms integrity means honesty, having strong moral principles, being ethical, doing the right thing, behaving honourably no matter who’s watching, being humble.

For the public service, it also means exercising authority in accordance with stated values and principles, the control of fraud and corruption, and pursuing high standards of professionalism. It means making good decisions that are legally valid and show the public service operates fairly, impartially, effectively and efficiently.

The first priority of the APS Reform Priorities is ‘an APS that embodies integrity in everything it does’. The 2021-2022 State of the Service Report explores the decline in trust in democracies and the important role public servants play in building trust in governments.

The report explores integrity further in section 1.3, listing the next Leadership Capabilities Model, the revised Commissioner’s Directions, and available resources and services.

Prepared by the APS Integrity Taskforce, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PMC) has released, in late 2023, an integrity action plan. The plan points out that integrity is a broad concept.

‘At its heart it is concerned with individual and institutional trustworthiness, and demands high standards of ethical behaviour and respect for the law. The Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) defines integrity as “doing the right thing at the right time” to “deliver the best outcomes for Australia sought by the government of the day”. In practice it means our behaviour matches the APS Values and we are accountable when it does not. At the systems level, integrity also refers to being ‘whole and undivided’, which means the APS needs to adopt a more strategic and coordinated approach to integrity across the service.’ (p. 2)

The benefits of integrity include being trusted, inspiring others to show integrity, setting a precedence for acceptable behaviour, building your own and an organisation’s reputation, fostering a productive work culture where people respect each other and do not fear retribution, and building trust with the public.

Integrity is a learnable skill demonstrated through words, deeds, and behaviours. It is about what people do and how they do it.

Integrity in the APS, and other jurisdictions, is a multi-layered concept that is shaped by frameworks and policies, assurance mechanisms, its employees and broader organisational culture.

Applicants for public service roles, no matter the level of seniority and the nature of the role, need to understand what integrity means and how it is captured across multiple selection criteria and capabilities. With the current focus on integrity, be prepared for application requirements that ask for evidence of demonstrated integrity behaviours.

Applicants also need to be aware that stewardship is now important for everyone, with changes proposed to the Public Service Act 1999 to include Stewardship as an APS Value. Stewardship means:

‘The APS builds its capability and institutional knowledge, and supports the public interest now and into the future, by understanding the long term impacts of what it does.’

Next, Part 2 looks at related terms like probity and ethics.

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.