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Integrity and oversight agencies – unravelling their DNA

August 17, 2017

The existence (or absence) and performance of Australia’s various integrity agencies* is regular fodder for a range of commentators, including academics, lawyers and parliamentarians. Ongoing high-profile conduct issues only serve to heighten public interest.

A favourite topic of debate is whether a federal anti-corruption commission should be established to address perceived weaknesses in oversight of national agencies and federal parliamentarians; the calls for this become more vocal when scandals emerge. Most recently, the Northern Territory Government has released an Exposure Draft Bill to establish its own anti-corruption body.

I have been fortunate enough to have worked in a few state-based integrity agencies and have also been involved in reviewing the performance/capability of several others. I am interested in their strategies, structures and performance in meeting their key objectives, but won’t explore the merits of establishing such bodies and their respective jurisdictional reach – others are better placed to comment on this.

However, in those integrity agencies that have been roundly successful in performing their functions, I have observed a few common organisational factors:

  • Proactive communication – they advise the public (and elected officials) about jurisdictional limitations; especially important to forestall any misperception that the agency is a post-box and will ‘investigate’ any and every matter it receives.
  • Understanding the risk landscape – how can you expect to successfully prevent or detect wrongdoing if you don’t understand how it might occur? Ongoing monitoring of the threat landscape (emerging risks, modes of perpetration) and proper adaptation is their organisational imperative, not a future state operating model.
  • Fit for purpose resourcing – the operating environment is fluid, affecting key considerations such as staffing tenure and skills requirements. Regardless of seniority, staff that have not updated their skills in line with the changing risk landscape will struggle to remain relevant. High performing integrity agencies recognise the importance of staff rotation and refresh.
  • Responsiveness – consistent and regular communication with agencies subject to oversight, as well as complainants, is a hallmark of successful integrity agencies. Nobody likes to be kept guessing about if/how their concerns are being addressed.
  • Identifying new evidentiary sources – the increasing democratisation of data and its open publication provides new sources for uncovering risks, establishing lines of inquiry and validating information and evidence. This approach coupled with a proper risk assessment is a powerful tool in any integrity agency’s arsenal. (We discussed this at the Australian Public Sector Anti-Corruption Conference in November 2017.)

A focus on strategic and architectural matters, rather than operational activities, might just lead to better bigger picture integrity outcomes for the community.

*Includes, among others, anti-corruption agencies, auditors-general, ombudsmen, integrity and public sector standards commissions.

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