Senior public servants must be empowered to make key decisions using their own individual ethical judgment, according to research presented at a conference hosted by UNSW.

Currently the public sector relies on systemising accountability, relying heavily on regulations, processes, and procedures.

The findings have particular relevance for the NSW public sector, which has been dogged by crises from RailCorp through to corruption at Wollongong Council.

"Individual ethical judgment is necessary in an organisation's ethical performance," said Associate Professor Stephen Cohen from the School of History and Philosophy in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

"Attempts to systematise judgment, reducing it to rule-bound accountability requirements, removing it from individual responsibility are not successful, and sometimes can be counterproductive," said Associate Professor Cohen, who interviewed large numbers of senior management in the NSW public sector as part of a research project funded jointly by the Australian Research Council, the RTA, and the NSW Department of Commerce.

The Federal Member for Lyne Robert Oakeshott and the NSW Deputy Ombudsdman, Chris Wheeler were amongst the guest presenters at the conference Ethical Excellence in the Public Sector of NSW.

Other presentations included:

"Ethical failures are costly, both in human and economic terms, the people who wear those costs are the citizens," said Dr Philip Quadrio, the conference co-convenor.

"This is not just a matter for academics, that's why there are large numbers of public servants from NSW attending," he said.

The conference was also structured to get input from attendees through workshops and interactive presentations.

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