Building Trust in the Australian Public Service: An Institutional Integrity Perspective

May, 2019


 By Nikolas Kirby, Simone Webbe & Building Integrity Staff




Building Trust in the Australian Public Service: An Institutional Integrity Perspective


In this blog piece, Simone Webbe and Nikolas Kirby draw on recent research conducted for the 2030 Australian Public Service (APS) Review. They propose a range of pro-integrity measures for the APS to implement in order to increase Australians' trust in the institution after years of decline in public trust in government institutions.



The current political climate poses significant challenges to government institutions. The rise of populist and more extreme politics, combined with the blurring of facts and ‘fake news’ pervading public discourse, reduces public trust in vital institutions of government. Foreign interventions into domestic politics through social media and other online mechanisms challenge the independence of democratic elections, while powerful private interests cross into government spaces, softening the divide between the ‘public’ and ‘private’ sectors. In short, these are challenging times for public institutions the world over. 

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The OECD finds that the strongest indicator of trust in government is the public perception of government integrity. Most troublingly, Australians’ trust in their federal government institutions has been steadily declining for a number of years now. The Australian Public Service (APS) plays a vital role in the functioning of democracy in Australia. This means that the APS is both particularly vulnerable to the effects of decreased public trust in it as an institution, but it also means that as an institution, it is well placed to orient its practices towards a pro-integrity framework to restore trust.

If the Australian Public Service (APS) is to meet its vision of being a global leader that is united, trusted by the public and its other stakeholder partners by 2030, then it needs to make building its institutional integrity at the centre of its strategy. To do so, it should focus on merit and tenure based appointments, while also distinguishing its exact position in an advisory capacity to government.

In order to ensure that the internal culture of the APS supports its institutional values, three things are needed: first, a legislative framework needs to be developed, (one that allows for an independent broad-based anti-corruption commission); second, leadership on ‘pro integrity’ activities is needed by a separate institution that builds on the existing APSC. Third, and finally, overall, there needs to be a shift in thinking towards cultivating integrity at the institutional level.

Institutional Integrity

'Institutional integrity is the ‘collective virtue of the institution itself,’ which is cultivated through the governance practices of its public officers. These public officers do not just comply with rules and promote shared values however, they also through their roles, take responsibility for making sure that the combined output of these practices is perceived by the public as ‘consistent, coherent, legitimate, praiseworthy, virtuous and trustworthy.’ [1] In sum, through aggregation of smaller or individual practices, the institution as a whole gains integrity and becomes a site of integrity-driven action.

Creating a framework for cultivating institutional integrity requires the promotion of the following four institutional qualities: purpose, legitimacy, fulfilling commitments, and robustness. [2]

Changing the Legislative Framework for Integrity

As with the public sector more generally, the APS must strengthen weaknesses in the following areas that are crucial to sustaining and cultivating institutional integrity: transparency, public visibility, and coherence, leadership in integrity measures, and its capacity to react to integrity risks. Furthermore, currently it lacks an integrated system-wide research and assessment capacity.

A comprehensive Public Integrity Act with broad scope across the Commonwealth public sector that reaches beyond the APS is needed to address the limitations outlined above. Fortunately, the existing APS Values and Code of Conduct duties provides a useful framework that is well positioned to cultivate and attain institutional integrity within the sector. Importantly though, this Code of Conduct ought to clarify that the value of ‘stewardship’ should be applicable to all public servants, not just their leaders. In making this clarification, ‘stewardship’ as a value is distributed and transformed into an institutional value, which confers a responsibility on all public officials to cultivate and sustain the integrity of their institutions.

Merit-based Appointments

It is crucial that APS secretaries are responsive to government needs, but also that they are able to perform well in their roles. Merit-based appointments are vital for institutional integrity, and in order to select candidates with a view to cultivating and maintaining institutional integrity, we recommend that merit-based recruitment and selection of APS leaders includes the following measures to best ensure the quality and apolitical candidature selection:


  1. 'A prescribed waiting period after any employment in ministerial office (federal or state) to improve public perceptions and confidence in apolitical candidates.
  2. The appropriate involvement of external stakeholders (such as business and community) in the selection process, without conflict of interest compromise. This would offer both an independent perspective and a check on how ‘in touch’ the candidate is beyond the walls of the APS.
  3. Recruitment and selection processes should explicitly involve discussions and considerations on integrity and the APS Values.
  4. A greater role for the APS Commissioner with more transparency and accountability for the selection decision, with an explanation to parliament if the proposed appointment is not made with the recommendation of the APS Commissioner.
  5. Improved security of tenure for APS leaders to a standard that is not subject to political interference.’ [3]
Cooling off periods

Although career interchange can be beneficial for the institution and in terms of improving institutional diversity, it is vital for institutional integrity that post-employment conflicts of interest are handled appropriately. We recommend that agency heads consult with the APS Commissioner for an independent expert check to decide how to manage potential conflicts of interest. Drawing from the experience of other countries could be instructive in this regard: France, Canada, Italy and Spain have dedicated integrity bodies for post-employment consideration, while ‘cooling off’ periods between 1 and 5 years apply in many other countries.

Integrity Commission

Current political debate on integrity in Australia on has focused on proposals to establish of a Commonwealth Integrity Commission, which would have the responsibility to ‘detect, deter and investigate suspected corruption and to work with agencies to build their resilience to corruption and their capability to deal with corrupt misconduct.’ [4]

This focus needs to move beyond an emphasis on anticorruption. A pro-integrity emphasis requires more than a dedicated anti-corruption agency with corruption-prevention responsibilities. It must include a visible, pro-integrity body whose mandate is to lead the public service in ‘how to be best always,’ in order to build up and sustain public integrity resilience from the foundations.

Properly executed, a pro-integrity mission would promote integrity for its own sake and in the process, deliver better performance outcomes. Integrity needs to be the primary responsibility of an independent pro-integrity body, whose work functions to protect APS Values. To that end, we recommend this new body be built upon the existing foundations of the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC), with broader powers, status and resources. Looking again toward other countries for inspiration, similar integrity bodies operate in the Netherlands, the European Commission, Sweden and Belgium.


To meet the challenges of the current political climate, discussed at the beginning of this piece,  the APS must aim to cultivate institutional integrity, especially if it wishes to increase public trust. In pursuing a clear purpose, the APS will drive performance; with increased legitimacy, the APS will realise core values. By fulfilling its commitments, the APS will ensure that it is a trustworthy partner. Finally, implementing robust accountability mechanisms and aligning incentives will enable the APS to offer the public the assurance it requires. By implementing a regime based on institutional integrity, situates the APS in a strong position to be a vital and trusted Australian institution into 2030 and beyond.


Note: This article is based upon research conducted by Nikolas Kirby and Simone Webbe for the Australian Public Service review, as a part of a series of commissioned research projects for the review by the Australian and New Zealand School of Government. Another version of this article was published in the Mandarin by Simone Webbe and Nikolas Kirby. The original research report is available in full here.


[1] Webbe, S., Kirby, N., 'How the APS can build trust by adopting institutional integrity,' The Mandarin, access at: 

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] ibid