Time to turn a new leaf with whistleblowers

We are now about six months into the new Liberal government mandate. It’s a good time to stop and take stock. From a whistleblowing viewpoint, has anything changed under the new regime?

There are some indicators of a positive change. In November 2015, scientists were reported to have been “unmuzzled.” We’ve also heard from public servants speaking off the record about a positive change in culture inside government; impartial advice is again valued. The new government has also dropped several legal cases—for example, one in which the previous government tried to silence Cindy Blackstock and her efforts to get fair funding for aboriginal education.

On the other hand, there are also negative indicators. While the Liberals promised to be open by default with information—and continue to reinforce this message—they have recently announced that reforms to the Access to Information Act will have to wait until 2018. This is a major disappointment for advocates. They believe that good recommendations for change already exist and simply have to be enacted. So why the wait? After 10 years of Conservative government, none of the skeletons in the closet will belong to the Liberals. There are still significant delays in obtaining information from departments under the ATI. Some departments, such as Public Services and Procurement, have actually regressed since the change in government.

With respect to whistleblowers, the picture looks as bleak as ever. Several remain locked in battle with the government, desperately trying to get their jobs back. One is Sylvie Therrien, who blew the whistle on a system of quotas for employment insurance investigators. These quotas meant that investigators were being encouraged to reject EI claimants for the flimsiest of reasons. Rejected claimants would then have to navigate a long and complicated system of appeals, a process that could take years. Therrien leaked information about the policy to the press, and was publicly called a liar. When evidence emerged that she was telling the truth, ministers claimed they were merely “targets.” Therrien was fi red, and, of course, her claims for EI rejected.

While the public and opposition parties weren’t fooled, the Conservatives were successful in at least one respect: in her fight to get her job back, they have reframed the issue around her conduct, and not the fact that she was essentially ordered to reject claimants who should have been accepted. Her case is in front of the Public Service Labour Relations Board, but she faces an uphill battle.

With the change of government, Therrien hoped for relief. Promises were made before the election, after all. She had been called a hero by the Liberals. In January, however, she learned that this was not to be. It is difficult to reconcile the positive tone of this still-young government with breaking its word with the reversal of its commitment and refusal to settle the matter. Possibly an answer lies in taking into account the bureaucratic culture against which Therrien had to speak and the fact that the public servants advising the new government on the fi le probably had a direct hand in both the policy she objected to and the reprisals against her. Is the decision based on advice from this quarter?

And perhaps this is the nub of the matter: how can any government change the prevailing culture and practices of an entrenched bureaucracy, particularly when members are implicated in questionable practices? We can easily imagine a scenario in which a senior executive tells the new minister, who knows no better, that Therrien was a rogue employee who had it completely wrong, that reinstating her or settling the case would set a bad precedent—and perhaps encourage others to copy her. There were, after all, alternative avenues for Therrien to follow in the case of real wrongdoing, and if she was disagreeing with a policy, well, it isn’t her role to object.

On the latter point, there is some truth. Public servants should faithfully implement legitimate policy no matter what their ethical stance. An official who is personally against same-sex marriage must still issue a marriage license to such a couple if the law says so. The opposite is also true. It is up to Parliament and the courts to strike down unjust laws and policies. A problem, however, emerges when the policy or practice is secret or causes direct and immediate harm. When there is no way for parliamentarians or the public to know a problem exists there is also no way for them to fix it. And in her case, Therrien did not refuse to reject EI claimants: she refused to reject legitimate claimants and informed the public of a secret, highly unethical policy targeting vulnerable Canadians. This, surely, is the kind of thing the new government wants to stop.

The other possible answer, and one we hope is not the truth, is that Liberals have chosen power over honour. Having the power, they can do what they want, not what they promised to do.

As to the other avenues available to Therrien, there were really none. Internal complaints such as this are typically investigated by someone considered safe, with an eye to making the matter go away. This is precisely what appeared to happen in Therrien’s case. As for the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner (OPSIC), it rejected her complaint on the basis that the law under which it operates bars it from investigating. This excuse has worn thin, and the incredibly low rate of investigations and findings by the office (11 in 10 years) suggest that it is a multi-million dollar piece of window dressing.

No senior bureaucrats have ever been implicated, even when the circumstances of the wrongdoing cases might reasonably have invited questions about poor oversight or complicity. The scandal that led to the resignation of former commissioner Christiane Ouimet also pointed at serious problems in the offi ce which have not been addressed. Let’s hope the new government and its ministers will take another look at Therrien’s case and treat objections from senior executives with a certain amount of skepticism. Across government, many officials who implemented some of the former government’s less savoury policies remain in place. Sometimes they were so enthusiastic that they became part of the problem, as in the case of the campaign against Cindy Blackstock. Rather than worrying about a fl ood of whistleblowers, it would be more constructive to reform OPSIC and its mandate, and other internal reporting mechanisms, so that internal whistleblowing becomes safe and effective (and, perhaps, make external whistleblowing unnecessary). As for ending Therrien’s ordeal, it would simply send a message that things really have changed.

This piece first appeared in the Hill Times on April 25, 2016. 

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Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse…

For a couple of years, Canadians for Accountability has been raising the issue of problems surrounding Safety Management System or SMS.  SMS is a “voluntary”, although the government will say “mandated”, reporting system for the safety of certain forms of transportation in Canada.  In essence it allows rail and air operators to do their own safety checking procedures and send the paper work to Transport Canada (TC).  The inspectors at TC make sure that all the boxes are filled in correctly, not that the inspection was done correctly!

The government will not admit it but the reason behind SMS was to allow TC to cut their budgets for inspections and inspectors.  We average, belive it or not, about one rail incident PER DAY in Canada.  Most of them are related to issues that should be part of safety inspections.  Airlines fair better under SMS than rail carriers because they have very large maintenance crews, but SMS is being extended to small carriers and bush fleets who do not have a culture of self examination (air minutes mean profit…. downtime means loss).

Now the government has decided to cut the inspection budget of TC again.  See: <http://globalnews.ca/news/1916438/funding-slashed-for-all-safety-programs-at-transport-canada>.

Our work is never done.  Sigh.

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Hiring veterans not a priority for O’Toole

by Sean Bruyea
   For the first time in eight decades, issues affecting Canada’s military veterans issues are featured prominently in an election.
   With so much at stake, why would government yet again mess up another issue with veterans: priority hiring into the federal public service? Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O’Toole, in another installment of government hype on the treatment of veterans, provided this statement during the July 2015 changes to priority hire veterans: “The Government of Canada is keeping its commitment to help military veterans thrive while making the transition to civilian life.”
   Prior to these changes, only medically-released members could have one chance to be priority hired. Serving members weren’t allowed to access internal competitions, representing 88 per cent of public service job openings. Changes now allow Canadian Forces members to access internal competitions but with no priority placement. Non-medically released veterans can have priority accessing only external jobs, representing the remaining 12 per cent of competitions. After World War II, all overseas veterans received preference in all competitions, the injured having the highest preference, no time limits, and multiple attempts.
   Time will tell if priority-hiring amendments are working, but are the minister, his department, and the rest of the civil service helping veterans “thrive”? In the first six months of 2015, which corresponded to O’Toole’s inaugural tenure, the Public Service Commission reports that he oversaw the priority hiring of zero medically released veterans. Since 2010, Veterans Affairs (VAC) has priority hired only six veterans, two of whom were hired by the Veterans’ Ombudsman.
   O’Toole isn’t the only veteran in the upper ranks of Veterans Affairs. Former top general, Walter Natynczyk was appointed deputy minister in November 2014. These two individuals are the two most powerful individuals in VAC and arguably the most influential veterans inside government. They aren’t the only ones piling on endless platitudes but why the gaping chasm between media talking points and dawdling?
   The current government has manifestly professed its commitment to veterans while demonstrating an iron grip on the public service. Yet, in the first six months of 2015, the entire 250,000 strong federal civil service could only priority hire 21 veterans.
 In the past five years, 6,162 CF members have received medical releases out of a total of 24,000 releases. Troublingly, the public service has engaged only 446 veterans, or less than 7.2 per cent, of medical releases for those years, (veterans released other years would have also qualified further lowering the per cent).
   Of the approximately 3,500 employees at VAC, only 97, or 2.7 per cent, are veterans, eleven of whom work in the Ombudsman’s Office. Most of these were not priority hires. A cornerstone commitment accompanying the controversial veterans’ benefits known as the New Veterans Charter was priority hiring. In the nine years since its enactment under the Conservative government, Veterans Affairs Canada has made just 25 veteran priority hires. Correctional Services, Public Works, Employment and Social Development, as well as Fisheries and Oceans, all priority-hired more veterans than the department legally mandated to “care” for and “re-establish” veterans.
   National Defence has better fulfilled an obligation to veterans with 838 veteran priority hires, 71 per cent of the total. But the booby prize goes to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board (VRAB). With more than 100 employees and a perennial insensitivity to veterans, this agency priority hired just one veteran in 11 years. This must be what the public service wants because the chief bureaucrat during this time, Dale Sharkey, was last month awarded the Public Service Award of Excellence. Her nominator: VRAB’s director of communication. Back patting and rhetoric over substance.
   Does all this mean the public service discriminates against veterans? Some veterans employed in the public service have made this allegation. Perhaps the greatest barrier is the public service culture. As the auditor general and DND have noted, hiring an individual can take 10 months while their application meanders through bureaucratic obstacles. When Canadian Forces members are ordered overseas at 48 hours’ notice to potentially lose their lives, government’s dull-witted response when the uniform comes off is a distant cry from the caring and dignity this government keeps telling veterans they deserve.  One astute committee member noted during hearings on the changes to the priority hiring bill: “why aren’t we thinking outside of the box in which we tend to think right now?”
   Enlightenment, compassion, and innovation appear anathema to the senior public service. There are time limits for the priority hiring window. Yet, for disabled veterans, the only expiry date on their disability is death. For spouses, if a veteran is too ill to work, she is barred from priority hiring.
 More than 70 per cent of the priority placements are in clerical positions. For some, worthy jobs, but O’Toole tells us our veterans have a wide-ranging skill set. In fact, there is no unique veteran specific follow-up to ensure that veterans are not frustrated, bored, undervalued, under-performing or suffering discrimination in a public service culture, which is widely divergent from that of the military.
   When Canadians join the military, they are constantly trained, taught, and transitioned into responsibility with some of the best mentoring management culture in the public or private sector. There is no gradual transition into a new public service job for the few accepted. All applicants must satisfy narrow criteria that either discourage or disqualify anyone outside the public service. Bureaucratic culture has a difficult time translating private sector skills to a public service context. No wonder almost all departments, except DND, have been unable to translate military skills sufficiently to substantively employ large numbers of veterans.
   Neither are disabled veterans supported to take on partial workweeks to adapt their limitations to new employment. Anecdotally, veterans are too frequently unable to make the transition from disability to 100 per cent work schedule in an unfamiliar work environment.
   But we really don’t know because we don’t care enough about our veterans to do any meaningful follow-up let alone provide urgently required coaching. And our veterans need a helping hand. Fully 60 per cent of recent releases have 20 years or less military service with 38 per cent having five years or less. They want a job and their skills are a must-have for a stagnant public service.
   For veterans who are sloughed off onto civilian not-for-profits, we have no idea how they are doing because there is no accountable follow-up. Washing hands of veterans by the government to outside agencies has taken on a mean, hot-potato streak in the last decade.
   Let’s put this all in perspective. In the six years after World War II, Canada’s federal civil service hired more than 130,000 veterans. By 1951, Veterans Affairs had 14,000 employees; almost 9,500, including more than 95 per cent of senior managers, were veterans. For all veterans in any employment, particularly the disabled, personalized follow-up was part of the package. Case managers met with veterans and employers on a regular basis to help ‘translate’ the military skill set and working limitations of veterans into civilian context.
   “Walt” Natynczyk provided the following in a scripted news release: “Those who wear the uniform of the Canadian Armed Forces serve Canada with loyalty, pride, and a commitment to excellence.” Each military member does this for each and every Canadian at the orders of the Government of Canada. Canadians have increasingly appreciated this reality of late.
   Discouragingly, government is far too mired in political self-interest, advised by the parochial and initiative-paralyzed bureaucracy to tangibly return the commitment in kind to our veterans and their families. Are veterans ‘thriving’ O’Toole? The best many veterans have been able to achieve, if they aren’t committing suicide, is to merely survive.
Sean Bruyea, vice-president of Canadians for Accountability, is a retired Air Force intelligence officer.
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