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Sister act

Note that this page is under review. It has not yet been updated to reflect changes to the Public Service Act 1999 and Public Service Regulations 1999, or contained in the Australian Public Service Commissioner's Directions 2013, that came into effect on 1 July 2013. Agencies may continue to use the guidance for reference, but should be aware that it may not reflect current legislative requirements.

About this resource

The file should be used in conjunction with the following text. It does not include captioning.

(Robyn Travers, a member of the public, and Sally Travers, her sister and a member of the APS, are interviewed separately about a conduct issue involving personal records)

Robyn Travers, Member of the public, Sally's sister: Well, Sally's a dedicated public servant. You know, she's my sister. We see quite a bit of her these days. And, you know, really we are pretty close.

Sally Grant, APS 6 Supervisor, Data Entry Team, Department of Personal Records: It's my job to monitor the quality of the department's data entry work. And I look at all the entries for my team—personal records for the members of the public. It's a huge database of personal information. So privacy and security—it's really important.

Robyn: But, I just don't think she quite gets what it's been like for me. My marriages have been a disaster, and the kids, you know. Well, with life being so bad at home when they were growing up, it really affected them badly, especially my daughter Christine. You know, I feel really guilty about that. I was such an idiot back then but I'm a more settled now.

Sally: Well, I've got this sister Robyn. And she's had a really rough trot. She's had a couple of difficult marriages and some of her kids have ended up really dysfunctional. She's lost touch with one of them in particular—her eldest, Christine.

Robyn: Anyway, Christine left home a few years back and went on her own way and I heard that she actually since then been living with some different fellas and I had no idea where she was. And it was her 18th birthday coming up, you know. So when I realized that Sally worked for Personal Records, I asked her if she would be able to check Christine's file out for me just to see if she could find a current address.

Sally: Anyway, we are a large family and we are really close. So at a recent family barbeque Robyn asked me if I wouldn't mind finding some current address details for her daughter. She wanted to send her an 18th birthday present and I thought, well, that's fair enough. I was reluctant though because I did realize that it was a breach of policy but it was personal information and it was a family member. Anyway I told Robyn that I didn't really think it was a good idea and I could get into lots of trouble.

Robyn: But she said she wouldn't do it. She said it wasn't the right thing to do. You know, well, I thought her attitude was pretty selfish and insensitive. I love my sister and would do anything for, her especially family stuff. And anyway, why can't public servants help the public like me? I mean, it's my daughter's record and it's Sally's niece.

Sally: And she went on and on about me being a public servant and that I should be there to help her because she is a member of the public. I really wanted to help because she's family and she's been through a rough time. It's good client service too, isn't it?

Robyn: Anyway, I thought she wasn't going to check it out but she came over a few days before Christine's birthday and she had told me that she looked at the file and there was Christine's address. Well, I gotta tell you, I cried I was so pleased about it. But I don't think it has actually worked out for the best in the end, you know. Christine rang the other night and she wasn't happy at all. She said that she had been trying to build a new life for herself, away from the family, and it's tough.

Reflecting on the exercise: Sister Act

The public service holds substantial information about the public and APS employees.

Some personal information is very sensitive and it could also be confidential. Inappropriate disclosure of information can result in embarrassment, disadvantage and even physical harm.

How we manage that information is critical to how we are perceived by the public and the confidence they have in public administration.

We must also be careful to avoid real or perceived conflicts of interests. We all have private interests—we have families, social relationships, financial interests, political views and we may belong to a club or society. Although we are public servants we are also part of the community and that provides the scope for conflicts of interests to arise.

However, it can be difficult sometimes to know which hat to wear.

Relevant APS values and elements of the Code of Conduct

  • The APS delivers services fairly, effectively, impartially and courteously to the Australian public and is sensitive to the diversity of the Australian public (s10(1)(g) of the Public Service Act)
  • The APS has the highest ethical standards (s10(1)(d) of the Public Service Act).
  • An APS employee, when acting in the course of APS employment, must comply with all applicable Australian laws (s10(1)(4) of the Public Service Act).
  • An APS employee must disclose, and take reasonable steps to avoid, any conflict of interest (real or apparent) in connection with APS employment (s13(7) of the Public Service Act).
  • An APS employee must not make improper use of (a) inside information; or (b) the employee's duties, status, power or authority in order to gain, or seek to gain, a benefit or advantage for the employee or any other person (s13(10) of the Public Service Act).
  • An APS employee must comply with any other conduct requirement that is prescribed by regulations (s13(13) of the Public Service Act). Public Service Regulation 2.1 imposes a duty on an APS employee not to disclose certain information without authority (i.e. information communicated in confidence or where disclosure could be prejudicial to the effective working of government). The full text of reg. 2.1 can found www.comlaw.gov.au.

Other relevant law

Management of use of personal information is governed by the Privacy Act andthe Freedom of Information Act.  

The Criminal Code also covers unauthorized access to and modification of restricted data. And there may be agency specific legislation covering non-disclosure of particular information.

Key Issues

Conflict of interest/complying with the law: What are the tensions and what are Sally's conflicting interests? What are her responsibilities and role? Has Sally breached the Code of Conduct? How could she have managed things differently?


  • Find out what your agency's policies are on accessing information or using IT facilities.
  • Get to know well the legislation that applies to your daily work.
  • When your instinct tells you that something is not quite right, discuss the matter with your supervisor or a respected colleague (remember that advice from a colleague is not authority to act), use the Reflect model or contact the Ethics Advisory Service.
  • Other useful sources of specific advice are agency Freedom of Information and Privacy contact officers.

Useful references

APS Values and Code of Conduct in Practice: a guide to official conduct for APS employees and agency heads (Chapters 4 and 11)

In whose interests?: preventing and managing conflicts of interest in the APS

Last reviewed: 
7 September 2018