Client relationships

The word “client” is often used in a commercial sense. Restricting it to this, however, does not capture the many professional relationships that carry a risk of corruption.

A significant number of reports to the ICAC about corruption and unethical behaviour involve an external client of a public sector agency; that is, an individual who is a recipient of a service provided by a public agency, such as a patient in a public hospital. The definition used here reflects the fact that the government provides services, benefits or programs to many individuals, groups and organisations, who are effectively its clients.

Services for clients should be provided equitably, and public officials need to maintain a professional distance from them. Corruption risks in this context usually arise from relationships with clients that are too close, or when employees misuse their positions to take advantage of clients.

Misuse of position to take advantage of a client
A NSW public authority investigated an allegation that a public official, whose job was to organise community support services, fraudulently obtained money from a client with an intellectual disability.

Case managers within the community support service were responsible for arranging assistance with the daily living needs of clients, home maintenance, medical appointments, paying bills, and the like. The investigation found that the particular case manager obtained over $5,000 from the client for services that were not provided.

The case manager’s employment was terminated and the matter referred to the police.

Source: Complaint to the ICAC.

Boundaries around client relationships can be blurred. For example, it is not always immediately clear if public officials should go to social functions that also involve clients or even socialise with clients over a drink after work or accept tickets from them to an event. What an agency needs to be aware of are the perceptions of other clients, colleagues or members of the public who may see a staff member socialising with a client. Could this be perceived as the staff member showing favouritism to that client? Is the staff member in a position where he or she is vulnerable to improper influence?

Staff supervisors and a code of conduct that sets out values to guide behaviour can help answer these questions. There are also some rules of thumb, for example:

  • staff should pay for their own ticket to events, and any food or drinks
  • if staff are invited to an event they should keep their tickets or other records of the event, including the original invitation
  • agencies should think about who is the best person to attend the event – there can be a difference between the organisation sending a representative for client-service reasons, and a member of staff accepting an invitation for personal reasons.

In some communities, especially small communities, social contact with clients is inevitable. Supervisors should be ready to manage any conflicts of interest or offers of gifts and benefits that involve their staff. Managers should consider reallocating the work of employees who find themselves in unmanageable close relationships with clients.  

Common corruption risks involving client relationships include:

  • a public official accepting or soliciting money or a benefit to provide favourable treatment or an unfair advantage to a client
  • a client offering bribes to influence public officials delivering a desired service
  • a public official deliberately failing to disclose a conflict of interest (for example, a personal relationship with a client)
  • a public official disclosing confidential information to a client
  • a public official facilitating “queue-jumping” by a client so he or she can obtain a public service or product more easily
  • a public official not following approval processes or exceeding delegation levels so a client gets something more easily or something to which they were not entitled
  • a public official abusing his or her position of trust to take unfair advantage of a client.
Undertaking compliance activities for family and friends
A NSW public authority investigated an allegation that regulatory officers had undertaken compliance inspections relating to the property of family members, work colleagues and close family friends.

An audit identified that regulatory officers had used the public authority’s resources and accreditation to perform compliance inspections for personal gain and the advantage of others.

The matter was dealt with by the public authority under its code of conduct policy and procedures.

Source: Complaint to the ICAC.

Developing a strategy

Agencies benefit both from having a written policy and procedures for managing client relationships, and from including client relationships as a risk to be assessed in internal audit and corruption risk management programs. Guiding values or principles around interactions with clients can usefully be included in the code of conduct.

Following a risk assessment of the management of clients, consider the following measures:

  • communicate with clients to make them aware of your policies and expected standards of behaviour (for both clients and staff)
  • contractually require staff (or volunteers) who engage with clients to declare conflicts of interest so these can be managed
  • rotate employees who engage with clients to reduce the risk of collusion or of close relationships forming
  • put in place, and inform clients and employees about, enquiry and complaints processes.

Recordkeeping is important for ensuring transparency and accountability around client services. Records should be kept of clients’ applications for resources and services, and allocations of those goods and services. File notes or other records should be made of any interviews or discussions. Conflicts of interest and the selected method to manage the conflict should also be recorded and kept on file.

Agencies can protect public officials from inappropriately close relationships with clients in several ways. First, educate staff who have frequent client contact about the risks and build their skills in dealing with overly friendly clients – make sure staff know the difference between being “friendly” and being “friends”. These skills can be learned in training sessions or on-the-job from experienced colleagues or supervisors, who can demonstrate how to, for example, politely decline a gift or explain why it is important to maintain a professional distance.

The ICAC’s Report on an investigation into the smuggling of contraband into the Metropolitan Special Programs Centre at the Long Bay Correctional Complex (January 2013) involved client relationships and familiarity that impacted on a public official’s duties. The publication Communicating anti-corruption messages in community languages (August 2010) also contains advice relevant to client relationships. The publication Managing IT contractors, improving IT outcomes (August 2013) discusses the risks associated with relationships that becomes too close between project managers, contractors and suppliers. The Queensland Crime and Corruption Commission’s publication on preventing fraud and corruption, Fraud and Corruption Control: Best Practice Guide (March 2018), also has a focus on client relationships.
Visit the gifts and benefits, conflicts of interest and regulatory functions pages for further information about other risk areas relevant to client relationships.


Reviewed November 2018