Some people working in the public sector don’t quite understand if they’re operating in a situation where there’s a conflict of interest.
That’s the experience of Judy Lind, chief executive officer of the ACT Integrity Commission, who says one of her aims is to educate public servants on what is appropriate behaviour and what’s not.
That can be a full-time job in itself, on top of the massive role of steering the commission through a growing mountain of reports and investigations.
She’s up to the task.
After all, Ms Lind was the CEO of the controversial Greyhound Welfare and Integrity Commission in NSW.
“That was a tough role,” she says.
“This is much more fitting for my public service background. It’s good working here at this commission and it’s interesting work.”
Just six months into the job (she was most recently the executive director of the operations branch at the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity), Ms Lind says prevention and education measures are valuable tools.
“When it comes to conflicts of interest, it strikes me in some of the matters we look at that it’s an issue that people fundamentally don’t understand,” she says.
“They can’t see that they are in a conflict situation, let alone knowing how to deal with it.
“So that’s a big area of focus for us. Some people just don’t seem to get it.
“It’s sort of like, ‘Yes, I’m a good friend of this person, and we have drinks every Friday night, and I happen to be on a selection process, and they’re a candidate – so what?’
“But you want those disclosures to be made and then to put the protections in place so that any process is actually, and is also actually seen to be, legitimate, and not subject to skewed decision making.
“So in terms of our prevention role, we’re developing training to target awareness around what is appropriate conduct and what isn’t appropriate conduct. And that is a challenge.”
December last year marked the third anniversary of the commission and it has now reached a high-mark staffing level of 25, which is a big jump from nine employees in its first year of operation.
But the CEO says 25 is the minimum needed to get on top of the commission’s work.
“From my perspective and understanding and reflection, it’s probably been a difficult gestation period for the commission,” Ms Lind says.
“It had quite a short time between the legislation being enacted, the appointments of the inaugural CEO and the commissioner.
“It got its first complaint on the second day of operation while trying to work out how it’s actually going to fill its function and operate.
“There are 300 pages of pretty dense legislation here.
“The commission got hit with the COVID era of working from home, it’s had issues with staffing and recruiting … and last fortnight achieved 25 bums on seats.
“That’s the highest level of actual staffing the commission has ever had and, in my view, it reflects what I consider to be hitting critical mass – the absolute bare minimum to start ploughing through backlogs and making sure we’ve got some redundancy in terms of functions.”
To date, all of the commission’s investigations have occurred in a private setting.
There are discussions underway about at least some parts of some future inquiries – testimony and witnesses – being called to a public process.
Those are the decisions for Commissioner Michael Adams KC, who is scrutinising legislation as it applies to balancing the public interest against reputation risks.
“The reality is, we just can’t generally say a lot about what we are investigating until those investigations are concluded and then reported,” Ms Lind says.
“Integrity commissions generally get flurries of media when reports are produced and what I call a ‘heads-on-sticks approach’, or criticism of their approaches, or kind of nothing at all.”
The Integrity Commission’s role is outlined in the Integrity Commission Act 2018 and the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2012.
It receives and assesses reports regarding wrongdoing in the ACT public sector, and its task is to decide whether a report of wrongdoing involves corruption, maladministration or conduct that poses a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety, or the environment.
There are more than 20,000 public servants in the ACT across a vast range of jobs and roles.
The commission has only delivered a handful of reports in its three years and currently has 12 full corruption investigations underway.
It has received 125 reports of alleged misbehaviour in the ACT public service so far this year, and 159 reports last year.
Progress has been made on the commission’s investigation into $8.5 million of contracts the Canberra Institute of Technology awarded to mountaineer Patrick Hollingworth, a self-described “complexity and systems thinker”.
The investigation began last June, sparking the first time the commission publicly stated it was conducting an investigation.
Assessments of some other matters have been delayed while the CIT one ramps up.
“The timeliness of assessing reports is not where it needs to be yet,” Ms Lind says.
“It’s too long, no question about that.
“But we assess every matter on its merits and match it against the definition of corrupt conduct.
“We are mostly dealing with conflicts of interest, procurement processes, jobs for mates – and simply the misusing of authority to do bad stuff.”