Scandals slow HR overhaul, hurt morale

Ottawa’s sponsorship scandals make it difficult to focus on HR modernization

Ottawa’s high-profile sponsorship program scandals are complicating efforts to modernize HR and hurting employee morale in the federal public service, say senior public-service insiders.

Late last year the Public Service Modernization Act was passed by Parliament. It’s a far-ranging legislation that proposes reforms for almost every aspect of HR management in the federal public service.

But fallout from the sponsorship scandal program could push the HR modernization agenda to the back burner in Ottawa, said Pierre de Blois, executive director of the Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service of Canada (APEX). “It is definitely a danger,” he said. “A lot of these programs have been sidetracked to meet other imperatives.”

APEX has consistently championed public service HR modernization, calling for improvements to recruitment practices and reductions in bureaucratic red tape through the greater delegation of decision-making — all the while stressing that less red tape did not mean less accountability.

But after the Auditor General reported the federal government had misspent at least $100 million in public money, there were widespread allegations of corruption and calls for tighter control of public purse strings and more rigour in hiring policies. The reaction threatens to undermine some of the objectives spelled out in the Public Service Modernization Act, said de Blois.

“All of this has been muddied,” he said. “You just don’t see that we are moving clearly in that direction anymore. You don’t sense that clearness of vision.”

Politicians and senior level bureaucrats react quickly when public pressure mounts, he said. “If they feel they have to demonstrate that they are really clamping down, then yeah, they will create more red tape,” he said.

Steve Hindle, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, a multi-professional union representing 42,000 public-service professionals, said federal civil servants were already struggling to implement modernization initiatives after a major reorganization announced by the Paul Martin government in December. The scandals will make it more difficult, he said.

“The biggest impact on modernizing the public service is that this has caused people to focus on other things. There is a lot of focus on the sponsorship scandal and that is taking attention and effort away from some of what was supposed to be coming through the public service modernization act.”

One of the major changes introduced in December was the creation of the Public Service Human Resources Management Agency of Canada. The agency is charged with improving human resources management in the public service and implementing the new act.

The scandals are not stopping the agency from that task, but new, unplanned responsibilities have been given to the agency in recent months, said Ralph Heintzman, vice-president of public service values and ethics at the new agency.

“(The scandal) has given the agency a major new priority,” he said. Most notably, the agency was charged with the hasty development of whistle-blower legislation, introduced last month.

For years Ottawa has had its HR management philosophy and practice under the microscope. Since 1997, for example, Ottawa has been rolling out “modern comptrollership” — an effort to create a culture where decision-making and risk management are the responsibilities of managers at all levels. Other reports and task force study culminated in last year’s modernization act.

Ultimately, HR modernization is about creating great places to work, hence improving employee engagement, said Heintzman. That can be done without speeding up recruitment processes or stripping away red tape.

HR modernization in the public service should not be confused with an effort to mirror the private sector, he said. Red tape and due process will always make things slower in government workplaces.

“The public sector can’t hire in the same way the private sector hires. It will be held to a higher standard of transparency, due process and equity,” he said.

“We will never have a public sector, and we should never have a public sector, that can make decisions and be as nimble as (a private sector) organization that isn’t held to those considerations.”

Inattention to due process may speed things up, but it’s often misconstrued as corruption, he said, pointing specifically to Human Resources Development Canada’s much publicized “billion dollar boondoggle.”

“The billion dollar figure was a complete illusion,” he said. In the final analysis less than $100,000 went unaccounted. “It was just the fact that in their eagerness to do things quickly not every ‘T’ had been crossed and not every ‘I’ had been dotted,” he said.

“The department was so focused on providing results and being agile that it lost sight of the other side of public service management which is due process.”

The constant bad press is discouraging for public servants and hurting morale, said de Blois.

“It is affecting trust in the public service and it is affecting morale to a large extend. Because I feel there has been not enough effort to demonstrate that these are reasonably isolated cases.” The media coverage gives people a sense that the entire public service is flawed, he said, adding he’d like to see more public expressions of support from the politicians.

“There is a real danger here of diminishing a very important asset by losing people by discouraging people. I hear more people saying, ‘To hell with this. Why would I stay?’”

A lot of people are close to retirement and the government needs to hold onto those people for as long as possible. “But if you go to work every day and all that happens is negative stuff… there comes a time when you just leave.”

Employee morale has been hurt by the intense scrutiny and constant media coverage in recent months, agreed Heintzman.

A key plank in the Martin government’s strategy to demonstrate its commitment to change the problems exposed by the scandal was the introduction of whistle-blower legislation. The new protections for employees who report wrongdoing are an important step forward for the public service, but also have a negative impact on morale, he said.

“When Parliament spends time debating whistle-blowing, essentially what it does is discuss wrongdoing. It implies (the public service) is wrongdoing and that it is rampant and we need measures to disclose it,” he said, adding it is simply not the case.

The bill itself was heavily criticized from some quarters. Hindle said he was “less than fully satisfied” with the bill. “People who disclose wrongdoing should have direct access to the Public Service Integrity Commission,” he said. A lot of people still view the whistle-blower rules as a tool of the employer and therefore find it hard to believe it will protect them from reporting wrongdoing, he said.

“That is simply not true,” said Heintzman, one of the primary drafters of the bill. I think the comments are based on misinformation. People haven’t read the act properly,” he said. The suggestion employees can’t go directly to the commissioner is “not based on a close reading of the bill.”

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