Integrity in Government



Key Summary:
  • Australia does not have a corruption crisis, but there are worrying signs.
  • Australia’s ranking in the Corruption Perception Index has diminished in recent years                                              
  • Trust in the commonwealth government has fallen
  • Identifying integrity breaches lays a base for preventive interventions.
  • There is a strong case for a commonwealth integrity agency.

Delivering good public policy is hard. Good public policy is distorted when integrity is lacking, or where corruption is present. When it is, policy objectives are damaged and trust is diminished. This policy brief provides a general framing of issues

In 2012 Australia’s ranking on the (global) Corruption Perception Index published by Transparency International was 7th out of 180 nation states. By 2020 it had slipped to 13th. Either ranking would be the envy of most nations, but to have fallen by 6 places is a matter of concern for Australia. We can do better, and there is a case for a national integrity commission. The case has been presented in a preliminary report of an ARC Linkage project.[1]

Governments use their resources and capacity to deliver public value. When corruption exists, or where integrity is wanting then the government’s policy processes and administrative skills are undermined. A national integrity agency should be a keen watchdog, but that alone will not ensure that corruption is controlled and that integrity will underpin all that government does.

Australia does not have a corruption crisis. Integrity generally is of a high standard. This is why any breaches are seized upon and why they cause widespread distress. Our state anti-corruption agencies are kept extremely busy with investigations that uncover irregularities, but certainly most politicians and public servants behave with integrity and good intent.

When asked in the constitutional values survey in 2008 “how much trust and confidence do you have in the commonwealth government” 81.6% of Australians answered either a great deal or a fair amount. When asked the same question a decade later in 2018, that proportion had fallen to 46.0%.[1] We have seen regular integrity breaches – sports rorts, travel allowance irregularities, poor procurement decisions, revolving door arrangements, but always officials and politicians say they broke no rules. That may well be so, but it does not always pass the pub test. What we need are not more rules, but more integrity. Two thirds of Australians support a federal anti-corruption agency.[1]

It is important to distinguish the roles of politicians and public servants. They are subject to different types of scrutiny. While anti-corruption agencies have jurisdiction over the vast proportion of employees in state governments fewer than 10% of commonwealth employees are covered by the only commonwealth anti-corruption agency, the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity (ACLEI).

One way to work on building integrity within government departments and agencies is to identify the sorts of breaches that occur. Different government functions are susceptible to different risks. For example, procurement could involve price manipulation or bribery, human resource management could involve nepotism or cronyism etc. Once these have been identified in a specific context practical preventive and integrity building processes can be developed.


Huberts listed 10 types of breaches that he observed in the public service in the Netherlands.[5] Each of these has been observed in Australia but it is not possible to quantify any of these:

1. Corruption: bribing
2. Corruption: nepotism, cronyism, patronage

3. Fraud and theft
4. Conflict of interest through gifts
5. Conflict of interest through sideline activities
6. Improper use of authority (for noble causes)
7. Misuse and manipulation of information
8. Discrimination and sexual harassment
9. Waste and abuse of resources
10. Private time misconduct

Most aspects of public administration fall within the following five categories or functions:

  • delivery of services to the public
  • financial management;
  • resource and service procurement;
  • human resource management, hiring people and managing them
  • issuing of licences, concessions and permits

Detailed research has been undertaken to map breaches in all five of these areas and propose interventions.[3] The approach was to find ways to change the effort to behave badly; change the risk and rewards; value integrity; raise awareness. These were put on a horizontal axis of a grid and on the vertical axis were the five main components of public administration, listed above. Based on integrity breaches and corrupt behaviour the researchers filled in each of the cells in the matrix. 

In delivering services, for example ensuring that there is transparency in interactions, reduction of anonymity, delivering with integrity, and alerting conscience would shape integrity enhancement and corruption reduction. 

A research analysis of procurement cases over a 30 year period in which the NSW Independent Commission against Corruption held hearings, found the following main types of breaches[4]:

  • Issuing and/ or approving fraudulent invoices, false receipts, dummy quotes and/ or certifying or falsifying documents for assumed legitimate purposes (55%)
  • Disclosing commercially confidential information to private companies owned by preferred contractors (or themselves or relatives) and/ or helping contractors with their bids or tenders (36%)
  • Concealing undersupply and/ or keeping quiet while preferred contractors overcharged department (9%)

The research found that at times there was system failure, characterised by:

  • Insufficient rules
  • Insufficient processes
  • Insufficient checks and balances
  • Insufficient knowledge

At other times there was system weakness, characterised by:

  • Insufficient monitoring
  • Evading or bypassing rules
  • Colluding to obstruct rules
  • Failure to meet organisational responsibilities
  • Weak culture

If a commonwealth integrity commission were to be established, there is published research work that allows identification of a set of red flags. There is also research on integrity breaches. From this one can construct a set of integrity building strategies. 

The integrity of government is paramount and in a climate of uncertainty and volatility, as well as declining trust in government, a structured approach can be taken to work systematically to ensure that public servants behave with integrity. Most of course do, but cultures sometimes foster non-compliance and self interest.

Policy recommendations
  • Departments to examine culture and opportunities for behaviour that diminishes standards of good public administration
  • Identify areas of risk in each of the five public administration categories above
  • Develop an integrity road map.
  • Identify an appropriate external source which might resolve issues should internal mechanisms not work.

[1] Brown, A. J., Graycar, Adam, Kelly, Kym Coghill, Ken, Prenzler, Tim Ransley, Janet (2018). National Integrity Commission – Options for Australia
[2] Graycar, A. (2020). Corruption and Public Administration. In A. Graycar (Ed.), Handbook on Corruption, Ethics and Integrity in Public Administration pp. 1-10. Cheltenham UK and Northhampton USA: Edward Elgar.

[3] Graycar, A., & Masters, A. B. (2018). Preventing malfeasance in low corruption environments: twenty public administration responses. Journal of Financial Crime, 25(1), 170-186.
[4] Graycar, A. (2019). Mapping corruption in procurement. Journal of Financial Crime, 26(1), 162-178.
[5] Huberts, L. (2018). Integrity:  What it is and why it is important. Public Integrity, 20, S18-S32.

About the Author: Adam Graycar is Professor of Public Policy at the University of Adelaide and Director, Stretton Institute.  He has worked in both government and academia and has published extensively on integrity and corruption.

The views expressed here are the author’s, and may not necessarily represent the views of the Stretton Institute.

Tagged in policy matters, integrity, good governance, public policy, corruption