Conflict of interest is a critical element of any government ethics program. It is also perhaps the most difficult to implement. The challenge comes in determining when friendships, kinship ties, and other personal relationships affect, or appear to affect, a government employee’s duty to put the interest of the public above his personal interest. Was the contract awarded because the bidder lived in the same neighborhood as the procurement official making the award or because the bidder offered the best value? Was the individual hired because the hiring manager came from the same tribe or because she was the most qualified? Even if there were no actual conflict in the two cases, is there an appearance of one?
Rules that produce sensible answers to such questions are not easy to write, and as I have suggested in earlier posts (here and here), much well-meaning advice on how to do so is either counterproductive or impossible to implement. A recent publication by the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption is thus a welcome addition to the literature. In 26 clear and crisply written pages, Managing Conflicts of Interest in the NSW Public Sector provides a road-map for writing and enforcing practical, workable conflict of interest rules.
It offers a short, easily understandable definition of conflict of interest followed by a commonsensical approach to applying it. The touchstone for determining when there is a conflict or an appearance of a conflict” is not the disappointed bidder or applicant or the government’s political opposition. It is instead a “fair-minded and informed observer,” otherwise known as “a reasonable person.” How to apply the reasonable person standard and the other standards and rules that make for a sound conflict of interest regime is illustrated throughout with real-world examples.
Written for agencies of Australia’s most populous state, a much broader audience will find the guide a valuable resource.