In the public sector context, a conflict of interest involves a conflict between a public officer’s duties and their personal or private interests. Actual, perceived and potential conflicts of interest can occur quite frequently and are not inherently unethical or wrong—acting with integrity requires those conflicts are identified, declared and managed.
An actual conflict of interest may arise when an employee is asked to make a decision as a public officer that directly affects or impacts their personal or private interests.
Importantly, some conflicts may only be perceived—an employee’s decision could be questioned based on a personal or private interest that may not actually have impacted any decision.
A potential conflict of interest arises where a public officer has private interests that could conflict with their official duties in the future, or where a public officer has competing interests because they hold more than one official role or public duty.
While this may seem obvious to some, conflicts can be difficult for public officers to identify themselves—particularly if they are asked to make decisions quickly and without consultation. In the first instance, officers should understand the ‘six Ps’ and ask themselves:
- Public duty versus private interest
Do I have personal or private interests that may conflict or be perceived to conflict with my public duty?
Could there be benefits for me now or in the future that could cast doubt on my objectivity?
Remembering that perception is important, how will my involvement in the decision or action be viewed by others? Are there risks associated for me or my organisation?
Does my involvement in the decision appear fair and reasonable in all the circumstances?
- Presence of mind
What are the consequences if I ignore a conflict of interest? What if my involvement was questioned publicly?
Have I made any promises or commitments in relation to the matter? Do I stand to gain or lose from the proposed action or decision?
Public officers should always seek advice from their manager or colleagues if they believe they may have a conflict of interest, even if it is just perceived or potential. Departmental policies will govern how those conflicts are then managed, and are usually based on the principles below.
If conflict of interest situations are not properly identified and managed they can endanger the integrity of organisations and can result in misconduct in the public service. The ICG supports the ‘six Rs’ below, which guide how conflicts of interests can be managed:
- Record or register
Recording the disclosure of a conflict of interest in a register is an important first step. However, this does not necessarily resolve the conflict. It may be necessary to assess the situation and determine whether one or more of the following strategies is also required.
It may be appropriate for the employee to restrict their involvement in the matter. For example, refrain from taking part in debate about a specific issue, abstain from voting on decisions, or restrict access to information relating to the conflict of interest. If this situation occurs frequently and ongoing conflict of interest is likely, further steps may be required.
If it is not practical for the officer to restrict their involvement, an independent third party may need to be engaged to participate in, oversee or review the integrity of the decision-making process.
Removal from involvement in the matter altogether is the best option when ad hoc or recruitment strategies are not feasible or appropriate.
Relinquishing the personal or private interests may be a valid strategy for ensuring there is no conflict with an officer’s public duty. This may be the relinquishing of shares or membership of a club or association.
Resignation may be an option if the conflict of interest cannot be resolved in any other way, particularly where conflicting private interests cannot be relinquished.
The ICG has developed guidelines and scenarios to help public officers identify and manage conflicts of interest.