Early birds: Why embedding probity early in a project is important

It is incumbent upon all public sector agencies to carry out their functions with integrity and accountability, as good stewards of public funds. Establishing a robust probity environment at the commencement of a project or process is therefore of vital importance. Probity should not be an afterthought or considered as simply a ‘tick box’ exercise, as this approach may not sufficiently mitigate the many risks that may arise during a project.

Probity, if well understood and applied, does not get in the way of good outcomes, but supports project objectives through the implementation of an efficient, effective and defensible process.

By embedding probity considerations early within the project set-up phase, the management of probity risks is less likely to be seen as an ‘inhibitor’ later on in the process. If probity controls are established and implemented early in the project or process, and transparently and clearly explained to participants, then all individuals involved in the project understand the parameters and can make informed decisions accordingly. When probity considerations are not factored in early in the process, then it is more likely that scenarios will arise later in the process, that require more extensive management and intervention than would otherwise have been the case.

Government projects and processes are a more positive experience for all involved when a probity rich environment is implemented. This is particularly the case for large government projects that involve many stakeholders, both government and non-government alike. For example, businesses submitting proposals for government contracts who know that probity is being taken seriously, yet applied sensibly and flexibly, are more likely to have confidence in the integrity of the process. This means they are more likely to accept the outcome of the process even if not in their favour. A probity rich environment also provides a safe space for participants to share ideas, and discuss feedback and guidance without concern that the process will be called into question.

Ultimately, implementing a robust probity framework at the commencement of a project or process provides all participants with confidence that the process will be managed in a fair and impartial manner. It helps to facilitate trust and will reduce the likelihood that complaints will be made about the process or project and/or its participants.

A strong probity culture is linked to the level of knowledge of probity requirements within a team. Agencies must ensure that their employees, contractors and consultants have a good understanding of what probity is and what it isn’t. They should be briefed on probity requirements as soon as they commence work on a project. These include probity expectations relating to their conduct and behaviour on the project and also any probity controls and process put in place relating to the project. This is in addition to any agency-wide Code of Conduct or ethics training. Simple things that project team members can do to improve understanding of probity requirements include holding probity sessions, discussing probity at meetings, and developing a probity plan, where required.

Remember that probity is not a list of rules, enforced automatically without regard for a project’s unique circumstances. If project team members equate probity with a long list of rules, then they can become fearful of the concept and the potential for unintentionally breaking “the rules”. These concerns generally result in the most risk-averse pathway being selected. However, maintaining probity does not have to mean no risk. The principle of probity is best observed when you obtain detailed knowledge of the specific circumstances and drivers of a project and balance these against the risks and possible solutions so that you can navigate a pathway that is fair and appropriate to all.

Each person is responsible for their own conduct and the integrity of the processes within their area of responsibility. However, it is important to ensure that participants know, from the outset, where they can seek probity advice and who they can escalate matters to, especially if significant issues arise that need further discussion and resolution.

Agencies can also engage a probity advisor if needed - one who is appropriately skilled and can understand the project objectives and the need for probity to be applied in a more flexible, risk-based manner. A less experienced probity advisor may apply probity principles in a more rigid manner, without the nuance required for the effective navigation of the numerous “grey” issues that need to be worked through during a project. Engaging a skilled probity advisor also provides assurance to participants and allows for independent validation that a project or process has been conducted in a fair and impartial manner.

See our guidance on what makes a good probity advisor here.