The Malta Independent 30 May 2020, Saturday

NAO recommends clearer rules on conflict of interest, acceptance of gifts

Neil Camilleri Monday, 30 March 2020, 16:48 Last update: about 3 months ago

Clearer definitions of what constitutes a conflict of interest and a gift are needed in policy documents regulating the conduct of public employees, the National Audit Office said.

In its latest report, the NAO assessed the effectiveness of the ethical infrastructure that guides public employees.

The NAO's assessment of the provisions regarding ethical guidance was based on the Public Administration Act, the Code of Ethics and the Public Service Management Code (PSMC).

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It analysed how these documents fit together and whether they provide a comprehensive guidance framework.

The provisions of these documents were assessed against international benchmarks to identify gaps.

The NAO focused on four principles, namely, conflicts of interest, gifts and gratuities, post-public employment, and reporting, monitoring and sanctioning.

Collectively, the 2019 Public Administration Act, the Code of Ethics, the PSMC and other supporting documents, provide guidance that addresses the key elements of ethical conduct for public employees.

In general, the Act and the Code are more oriented towards value-based guidance, whereas the PSMC provides specific rules that are to be adhered to.

Although the ethical framework is comprehensive, there exists scope for improvement, the NAO said.

While it is evident that the Act, the Code of Ethics, the PSMC and other documents are to be read together, the public employee may be better guided if a framework on how these documents fit with one another was provided.

Another aspect that warrants review are instances where the 2019 Act and Code were somewhat incongruent with the PSMC. These incongruencies may create ambiguity for public employees.

The NAO also noted that the guidance in place at times provided vague information on certain issues and while the ethical principle was clear, definite parameters were lacking.

Regarding conflicts of interest, the ethical framework is reliant on individual integrity and self-declarations. Differences in the provisions defining the extent of where a conflict of interest situation arises may create anomalies for public employees in assessing a potential conflict. Moreover, the ethical framework can only be effective if processes are in place to follow up and act on declarations submitted by public employees.

Differences in the provisions regarding the acceptance of gifts stipulated in the Code of Ethics, which are limited to public employees, and those in the PSMC, which extend to any member of the household were noted. This, together with the lack of a clear definition of what is meant by gifts and gratuities, and what is deemed as acceptable and what is not, create further uncertainty. The NAO's concerns can be addressed through better regulation, particularly through the establishment of a common understanding of what a gift entails and the setting of thresholds.

The Public Administration Act, the Code of Ethics and the PSMC provide suitable guidance in relation to post-public employment. Provisions regulating the reporting, monitoring and sanctioning elements of the ethical framework that guides public employees are also in place. However, their effectiveness depends on the extent to which these are enforced.

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