Integrity commission tries to mend broken image

Federal whistleblowing agency ‘still reeling from shock’ of critical auditor general’s report
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/19/2011

Mario Dion had a daunting task ahead of him when he became the interim commissioner of the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commission of Canada (PSIC) in December 2010.

The federal agency — set up in 2007 so federal public servants and members of the public could disclose potential wrongdoing in the public sector — was dealt a blow when an auditor general report revealed the office only conducted a few formal investigations despite receiving hundreds of disclosures of wrongdoing and complaints of reprisal in its first few years.

In addition, the previous commissioner, Catherine Ouimet, was found at fault concerning her interactions with staff, reprisals against employees and the performance of her functions.

But in the recently released annual report from PSIC, Dion outlines several actions taken to improve “an organization still reeling from the shock of a highly critical report.” These have included a third-party review of closed files, improved staffing, a formal policy and procedures manual, workshops for senior officers and the establishment of an advisory committee.

“One of the key objectives of all this is to provide greater accessibility in a real sense,” said Dion, who will remain as interim commissioner until December 2011.

Hired to review the 221 files that had been closed by the PSIC since 2007, Deloitte identified 70 files containing 114 deficiencies. The 70 files are now being reviewed by two special advisors and progressing well, said Dion, with resolutions expected in the fall of 2011.

“Time was of the essence. I did not want this process to last for two-and-a-half years,” he said. “I opted for an expedited approach, which does not exclude, of course, digging deeper when the case warrants.”

While there’s logic to the review by Deloitte and the special advisors, there’s an underestimation of how seriously off the rails things are, said David Hutton, executive director of FAIR (Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform) in Ottawa.

“The previous commissioner did a pretty spectacular job of making sure that agency simply did not do its job,” he said.

The existing files can’t be trusted to be complete or accurate and many witnesses are now gone or are reluctant to be identified, said Hutton.

“It’s quite a difficult task to undo this mess but it’s important because we’ve had a massive obstruction of justice that’s affected literally hundreds of people and shielded who knows how many wrongdoers.”

However, Dion is “a very different kettle of fish” than Ouimet and the formation of an advisory committee, which held its first meeting in May 2011, is excellent, said Hutton.

“It’s a much more open type of committee than you would often find,” he said. “The big question is, given that they made such a terrible, terrible mess of the first iteration, this time are they going to listen to experts and actually take advice?”

Despite the challenges, the PSIC saw a greater number of inquiries (256, up 23 per cent), disclosures of wrongdoing (72, up 29 per cent) and complaints about reprisal (25, up 56 per cent) in the past year — possibly due to the heightened media attention, said the report.

There were also 125 per cent more investigations underway compared to the last fiscal year.

“We have a few cases in the pipeline that appear to be prospects for the tribunal,” said Dion.

Changing the culture of any large organization is a long-term process but once a few cases are decided by the tribunal, it should help build the necessary confidence in the system, he said.

“That will be very powerful in terms of making it clear that the act can indeed lead to successful reparation for somebody who’s been victimized.”

To encourage more people to come forward and report wrongdoing, Dion said he is considering a new form of assistance to whistleblowers, something akin to a paralegal.

“It is a difficult thing to do, for people to come forward,” he said. “It is somewhat complex, the statute, and for a layperson under some state of excitement to start with — (feeling) instability, nervous, stressed — to have to figure out precisely how to make disclosure is a difficult thing to do.”

Clear signals from leadership are also necessary, he said.

“That’s one thing that I wished was made a little bit clearer. It’s been four-and-a-half years since the act was adopted, the public service is still a culture largely based on hierarchy.”

However, culture is not necessarily the biggest issue, said Hutton, citing the successful work done in the United Kingdom around whistleblowing.

“I don’t think it’s anything to do with the U.K. culture being different from Canada, it’s to do with having a very well-written, well-thought out, simple legislation put in place.”

Even a competent commissioner will find his hands tied by the act relating to the PSIC, said Hutton, citing problems such as an imbalance of power between whistleblowers and their departments and a lack of parliamentary oversight.

There’s been a major turnaround in the U.K. about how whistleblowers are perceived by the public and the media, said Hutton.

“Research shows whistleblowers tend to be high performers, they’re very loyal to the organization, they don’t go rushing off to media, they take things up through the line of command, they do it by the rule book,” he said.

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