Misuse of commonwealth resources and conflict of interest with employees conducting own businesses
The Merit Protection Commissioner reviewed several misconduct cases where APS employees used agency resources to conduct a private business. The misuse of resources consisted of using email and the internet to communicate with clients, business associates or to conduct share trading. In all cases, the employees had failed to notify the agency of their business interests (as outside employment) in a timely way.
In addition to the misuse of resources, the employees engaged in behaviour that created a conflict of interest that each failed to recognise and which compounded the seriousness of their behaviour.
In the first case, the employee had a private business relationship with a colleague and attempted to advantage the colleague in a staff selection process. The Merit Protection Commissioner considered the employee's conduct at the highest end of seriousness, a failure of leadership and recommended that the sanction of a reduction of classification be confirmed.
In a second case, the employee communicated with business partners using agency email and his work signature block. The business he was involved in had some relevance to his employment and he referred to his employment on the business's website. The agency imposed a financial penalty on the employee and the Merit Protection Commissioner recommended that the sanction be confirmed.
In a third case, the employee contacted a supplier to the agency and suggested the company may be interested in a commercial arrangement with a friend of the employee. The Merit Protection Commissioner noted that such behaviour represented a risk to the reputation of the agency, including the possibility that the supplier felt obliged to follow up the contact in order to retain the agency's business. The Merit Protection Commissioner recommended that the significant financial penalty imposed on the employee as a sanction be confirmed.
In the view of the Merit Protection Commissioner, agencies should not assume that employees universally understand the concept of a conflict of interest and are capable of making sound judgements, particularly when their personal interests are at stake. Agencies need to regularly raise awareness, including providing opportunities for employees to explore conflicts of interest through the discussion of scenarios. Outside employment policies need to be actively promoted and should emphasise that public servants need to be, and seen to be, scrupulous when using taxpayer funded resources.