The least ethical reported occupations were state politicians (-22), federal politicians (-20) and real estate agents (-18).

The media shows an abysmal rating of 1 compared to 22 only two years ago

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Public confidence in the ethics of the public service and government has plummeted

A new index has shown public confidence in the public service and government has plummeted (again) compared to other sectors which experienced a “softening” in ethics over the past year.

In 2022, the ethics index scored public service and government at 38, down eight points from the 2021 (46) and 18 points from the 2020 (56) ethics scores, respectively.

The Governance Institute report showed health and education maintained a relatively strong ethics score at 73 and 70, respectively.

This is the seventh annual ethics index published by the Governance Institute of Australia. The overall ethics score, which is compiled by crunching data in a survey of 1,000 people, also showed “a significant fall” of three points from 45 last year to 42 in 2022.

Commenting on the downward trend in trust for Australian institutions, Governance Institute CEO Megan Motto said direct action was required to address the problem.

“Given strong ethics are an indicator of a strong, well-functioning society, this is a major concern and this year’s results must serve as a red flag reminder of the importance of trust and ethics at all levels of our society,” she said.

Motto pointed to trust in the 2020 ethics index, which soared off the back of a coordinated and well-communicated initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The general sense within the community that “we were all in this together” two years ago buoyed ethics scores because the path forward seemed more precise and the unity with which everybody was headed in that direction was apparent, she said.

In a post-health-crisis-response world, Motto observed, people were apparently more divided and cynical, as well as less trusting.

“We put our trust in our governments and the medical profession and this was largely rewarded. But we have seen an unravelling since,” she said.

“As the intensity of a crisis lessens, we begin to interrogate the response.

“We see the other problems around us in the harsh light of day, such as health advice versus politics, multiple corporate and government scandals, workplace issues such as the return to the office and the ongoing ‘Great Resignation’, plus growing concern [about] issues such as climate change.”

For the federal government, respondents said a failure to act on their “ethical obligation” to address climate change issues undermined the responsibility people ascribed to public institutions.

Survey respondents gave occupations in health, which was the highest rating ethics sector, high ethics scores for nurses (77), fire services (75; a decline on last year’s net ethical score) and ambulance services (74).

This year, Defence force personnel, judges, police and state politicians all saw declines in perceptions of ethical behaviour.

Despite the poor scores in 2022 overall, Motto reflected, community expectations about ethics had also increased. This year the ethics expectation deficit — the gap between people’s expectations of how ethical something should be and how ethical they think it actually is — widened to -37 (-28 in 2021).

“The wider the gap, the bigger the indication that society is not performing the way we want it to,” Motto said.

“Following two years of poor results, it’s time for an ethical reset for the nation. Organisations must reaffirm their commitment to ethics and creating a positive culture. If culture is not deeply entwined with your overall strategic plan, then there is more work to be done.”

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