12 September 2023

Public servants perceived as more ethical this year than they were last year

| Chris Johnson
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The government sector has climbed up the ethics index, but politicians remain low on the scale. Photo: James Coleman.

Politicians and public servants have improved in the estimation of the Australian public when it comes to ethics, but there is still a lot of room for improvement.

Results of the 2023 Governance Institute of Australia Ethics Index show politicians at all levels of government to be enjoying a significant increase in the public’s perception of their ethical behaviour compared to previous years.

But despite the boost, politicians remain at the lower end of the spectrum in the bottom five occupations.

After three years in the doldrums, the public service has bounced back to a respectable mid-range rating on the index.

On a scale of -100 (very unethical) and +100 (very ethical), the public service and government sectors have started reversing the decline, with an Ethics Index score of 46, up from 38 last year.

In 2001, the score was 46 and in 2020 it was 56.

While fire and ambulance services have helped to drive the overall rebound, CSIRO maintains its position as the most ethical organisation within the public services and government sector, with a net ethical behaviour score of 57.

Border Force and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission come in the next highest with both rating 48 on the scale.

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Financial sector regulators have declined in net ethical score from 34 to 30. Local councils and shires, the State and Federal parliament have all risen in net ethical perceptions

Perceptions of the police have climbed 7 points, with 1 in 5 people saying police are ‘Very Ethical’.

Independent research was conducted for the index over June and July this year by Ipsos, surveying 1000 people weighted according to age, gender and location so that it closely represents the demographic makeup of the Australian adult population.

Based on that survey, the index reveals the ethical behaviour of state and federal politicians has been rated far more positively this year compared to 2022.

The ‘importance of ethics’ has reached an all-time index high of 84.

Governance Institute chief executive officer Megan Motto said the increase in importance placed on ethics shows expectations aren’t being met.

“The Ethical Expectation Deficit – which is the gap between the value we place on ethical behaviour and the perception – is growing wider,” Ms Motto said.

“This indicates that there’s still plenty of work to do by organisations and individuals, both in the public and private spheres to ensure good, ethical conduct and a positive culture remain top of the agenda.”

The rising cost of living, cybersecurity breaches and the increasing use of AI are seen as the top ethical challenges for 2024.

“Concerns around the use of generative AI and data breaches are clearly playing on the minds of the public, with an overwhelming majority feeling there is an urgent ethical obligation for companies to notify customers of all data breaches – not just serious ones,” Ms Motto said.

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According to the report, Australians have a strong sense of ethical behaviour, with certain behaviours and actions rated as unethical across a general range of potential ethical dilemma situations.

“When asked what elements are important to ensure ethical conduct in society, accountability (52 per cent) has just overtaken transparency (50 per cent) in importance due to the latter significantly softening in importance,” it states.

“Whilst transparency is clearly still important, there is an increasing perception of the need to take ownership of any mistakes or issues (possibly related to the data breaches experienced in recent times).”

The media doesn’t fare well in the index either, being rated as the least ethical sector (-9) but it is real estate agents who are regarded as the least ethical occupation (-19), according to survey results for the index.

Health is rated as the most ethical sector (66) but GPs who don’t bulk-bill are seen as somewhat unethical (-26)

The most ethical occupations are Fire services (82) followed by Ambulance services (80) and pharmacists (73).

Maintaining Stage 3 tax cuts while only delivering a modest increase to the JobSeeker allowance is perceived as somewhat unethical (-27) but breaking an election promise is seen as more unethical (-34).

Now in its eighth year, the 2023 Ethics Index has seen an overall increase in the nation’s Ethics Index Score from 42 to 45. To download the report, visit the Governance Institute.

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