Adieu to a friend, ally in accountability wars

Allan Cutler, Sean Bruyea and Ian Bron

A stalwart champion for whistleblowers and the laws to protect them is stepping down. Wrongdoers, especially those in government and their apathetic allies in oversight may think they can take a breather. They may not have long to rest.

There are only two organizations that focus on whistleblowing in Canada – the Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform (FAIR), and Canadians for Accountability (C4A). FAIR became a powerhouse of advocacy under David Hutton’s direction. David has recently announced he is stepping down.

Prior to FAIR, David was already an expert in management systems and organizational change. A senior executive inindustry, he later led a successful consulting practice for 20 years, publishing two authoritative books on quality management. David took over as Executive Director of FAIR in 2008.

David Hutton worked arduously to build FAIR. He created the website from scratch compiling more than 3,000 pages of valuable whistleblower resource material. David produced original reference works such as “The Whistleblower Ordeal” and “How Wrongdoers Operate”. Most frustrating for government was David’s thorough analyses of Canada’s disturbingly weak whistleblower laws and the frequent lame duck operations of the office entrusted to enforce them, the Integrity Commissioner. Kady O’Malley, prolific political journalist, aptly billed FAIR’s website as the “most dangerous website in Ottawa.” Sadly, since David’s departure, FAIR’s website remains down.

David took hundreds of calls from whistleblowers in distress, dispensing advice when he could, seeking collaboration with C4A to help others. He spoke at Parliamentary committees and granted hundreds of interviews. He participated in international forums on whistleblowing and transparency. A notable achievement was ‘International Principles for Whistleblowing Legislation’ by Transparency International. Both C4A and FAIR were active in the development of this International standard.

David was, and we hope continues, working on a documentary about Canadian whistleblowers while compiling video profiles of whistleblowers from all walks of life. He raised the money and did all of this not because he had to and certainly not because he was paid. Like everyone in our organizations, he was a volunteer and did it because he believed that whistleblowers are our best hope at exposing corruption, wrongdoing, and unethical behavior. (And there’s plenty of evidence that they are: research has shown that 47% of fraud is uncovered by whistleblowers.)

David’s work was not always appreciated and often fell on the deaf ears of the insular sandbox of Canada’s federal senior bureaucracy. When Mario Dion became the Integrity Commissioner in 2010, he assembled a stakeholder advisory committee. He could not ignore whistleblower and accountability groups such as FAIR, C4A, and Democracy Watch. We were invited.

This committee was sold as an opportunity for whistleblowers and their advocates to be heard. We were led to believe the commissioner wanted us to participate in the process of creating a safe environment for federal government whistleblowers and to improve the laws and systems in place. FAIR and C4A’s expansive contacts with and input from hundreds of whistleblowers provided us with an expertise and insight not available to Dion. We were encouraged by Dion’s initiative. We knew we could help if listened to.

These hopes were dashed in 2012 when David was unceremoniously dumped from the committee. His crime: he had dared to remain publicly critical of Integrity Commissioner and the performance of his office. This reaction was to us very telling: we believe that Mr. Dion expected us to avoid or ‘sugarcoat’ criticism in return for the quid quo pro of the seat at the table. But we were there to defend whistleblowers and their right to report corruption, mismanagement and/or abusive behavior so that government can be all it claims to be. Sadly, Integrity Commissioners have been terrified of integrity.

To get the job done, we must be critics of government’s otherwise blind eye to wrongdoing. We are constructive critics but sugar coating is not required and should not be expected. And, truthfully, this is part of what makes a democracy vibrant. We think that the average grown-up Canadian understands this. So we are disappointed every time we get this knee-jerk reaction from government officials to blacklist, expel and/or exile voices who merely present inconvenient facts.

Why was David expelled into the wilderness when we had been equally critical of Dion? Whatever small reasons government may have, both C4A and Democracy Watch were appalled. There were no gag orders or leashes placed on any of us by Dion. David violated nothing except a dysfunctional expectation of servitude. We therefore resigned, partly in protest and partly to ensure that Mr. Dion could no longer claim that he was consulting with us.

We stress that C4A’s decision to resign from the Advisory Committee was in support of Mr. Hutton, the individual, and not necessarily FAIR. He has always been a strong supporter of openness, transparency and gave honest criticism.

Our admiration of what Mr. Hutton accomplished continues. Although both C4A and FAIR under David’s direction welcomed whistleblowers from all walks of life, C4A specialized in working closely with whistleblowers while shining a light on accountability failings in the private and public sector. David became Canada’s leading expert in analysis of Canada’s whistleblower laws and the operations of the Integrity Commissioner’s office. We have been fortunate in David’s willingness to collaborate for the common goal of making Canada a better place by advocating for safe, fair, dignified and just avenues for whistleblowers to report those people, events and activities that weaken Canada and hold us back from greater prosperity.

Mr. Hutton’s voice and his skills are much needed on what is a bleak landscape for Canadian whistleblowers. The federal government’s whistleblower protection laws are largely ineffective. The cases being brought forward are trivial compared to some of those coming to us. Many of these individuals reporting grievous wrongdoing have already tried the Integrity Commissioner, and found no remedy or protection from the ruthless reprisals of senior bureaucrats. Most provincial laws are similarly weak, with some being little more than a trap for the unwary. And as for the private sector, there remains almost no protection at all.

Government should cut short their celebration at David’s departure. He has indicated that without the many responsibilities of running a charity like FAIR, David “may be more effective as an advocate for change.” So while we wish him well in leaving FAIR, we hope that we will hear from David Hutton again… soon.


Prime Minister Harper: Thank you for Julian Fantino

Dear Prime Minister Harper:

Gosh, the Veterans Affairs portfolio has been difficult hasn’t it? I don’t think you have received enough credit however for appointing Julian Fantino as the Department’s Minster. He has been a blessing in disguise to Canada’s disabled veterans and their families.

Canadians, particularly veterans, may be widely repulsed by the constant shenanigans of Minister Fantino. I suspect that being the veteran and military champion you claim to be, you had a hidden plan to bring substantive change to that poorly managed department. Our senior public servants and their policies are largely integrity, compassion, transparency and innovation challenged.  Those at Veterans Affairs (VAC) are arguably the worst of the lot.

Back to Minister Fantino. Many believe you appointed the highly controversial ex-police chief because he could somehow command order amongst those ungratefully vocal veterans who dared exercise the very rights for which they sacrificed in uniform. You know, I am referring to those pesky fundamental freedoms of expression, association, peaceful assembly and the press.

Just as Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn noted following the widespread breaches in my privacy in 2010, VAC all alone in Charlottetown needed a change in culture. Rightly bringing the department back to Ottawa would be a rather large budget line. Firing all those questionably performing senior bureaucrats could face resistance in the public service.

I suspect you knew that such big change would require widespread public support. But most Canadians didn’t know or care about veterans. Disabled veterans were supposed to wither away quietly with meagre handouts. Meanwhile society benefits from veterans’ sacrifice without society sacrificing much in return to care for them.  Fantino’s arrival helped change that.

Although the Prime Minister’s Office so adroitly worked on the Senate scandal to bring much needed attention to Senate reform, appointing Julian Fantino was your magnum opus.

He acutely offended aging veterans who travelled a thousand miles to meet with him in Ottawa during one of Canada’s coldest winters on record. Rather than apologize for standing them up, Fantino accused the veterans of being “duped” by the public service union doing the job the Minister should have been doing, i.e., protecting services for veterans.

During the altercation which left one veteran in tears, Fantino declared he was late because he was at a Cabinet meeting to “champion some issues on behalf of veterans”.  Surely, those veterans suffering psychological injuries have been the hardest hit and the least cared-for in the tangle of VAC bureaucracy. The budget released two weeks later had nothing for living veterans such as those he offended. The much-respected late Jim Flaherty told Lisa LaFlamme on budget night that “I haven’t been asked for money for post-traumatic stress disorder specifically”.

Instead, Minister Fantino has been busy signing his name to all manner of letters to the editor and opinion pieces in which he (read VAC senior bureaucrat script writers) makes fascinatingly spurious claims. In the Huffington Post, Fantino wrote, “The Disability Award forms only a small percentage of the total financial benefits available to injured Veteran” under the New Veterans Charter (NVC). In 2013, more than three times more or $419 million was given to veterans as a lump sum disability award than the $124.7 million paid out by all the other “financial benefits” of the NVC combined.

During Parliamentary testimony, Fantino alleged veterans could receive the impossible amount of $10,000 per month in financial benefits from VAC under the NVC.  The Minister and his department have repeatedly failed to back up this assertion. It was a master stroke to have Minister Fantino accuse veterans of misinformation when Fantino and his senior bureaucrats are the greatest purveyors of misleading half-truths. And we can’t forget how brilliant was the plan to have Minister Fantino along with three political staffers, Deputy Minister Chaput and General Semianiw all run away on national news from the lone spouse of a veteran, Jenny Migneault. She was clearly not a threat or a union ‘dupe’. But Canadians needed to see that if Fantino has little respect for veterans, he and senior bureaucrats have little more than disdain for veteran spouses.

What veterans don’t understand about your Machiavellian plan is why the senior VAC bureaucracy which needs deep cultural change is allowed to run rampant. In spite of multiple Executive positions designated for cutbacks, VAC has reportedly yet to make those individuals ‘redundant’. Furthermore, Deputy Minister Chaput continues to rake in her annual bonus while she has increased her staff by 500% to ostensibly generate much of the Department’s “misinformation”.

Whereas Fantino can’t quite match the buffoonery of Rob Ford, it was a nice touch that the Minister felt “sorry” for Toronto’s mayor. Fantino then hit a home run when he insensitively compared Ford’s drug and alcohol addiction to sufferers of PTSD, like veterans from the war in Afghanistan.

I know there is much pressure to shuffle Minister Fantino out of Cabinet this summer. I urge you to resist this. Julian Fantino is the gift that keeps on giving to all Canadians.

Never in modern memory has a Minister by his own poor example brought so much attention to the profound cultural problems infecting Veterans Affairs. His antics will continue to highlight the indignity and humiliation to which far too many veterans and their families are subjected by Canada’s federal government. Then you will be able to bring about the deep transformation needed at VAC.


There’s a failure of leadership in the public service

Ian Bron and Allan Cutler

Three years ago, we attended a conference of government administrators in Victoria, B.C. Wayne Wouters, Clerk of the Privy Council and the most powerful bureaucrat in Canada, was a keynote speaker. Someone asked him what he considered the qualities of the ideal public servant. We expected an answer that included things like integrity, devotion to the public interest, competence, and non-partisanship. Instead, we were treated to his reminiscences of the flag debate in the 1960s.

This says much about the current state of leadership in the public service, how distant it is currently from golden age ideals and out of touch with modern public expectations. The latest federal government re-visioning exercise, Blueprint 2020, reinforces this reality. During Wouters’ recent testimony before a Parliamentary Committee, he patted himself on the back for doing such a fine job, arguing that there was no evidence of a morale problem in the public service. “I want to do a good job. I think I’m doing a good job,” he said.

Wouters is hardly neutral on the subject. However, is he really doing a good job? More broadly, are senior bureaucrats leading the public service well, and, by extension, the working in the public interest? And are they being held accountable for failing to do so? We think not.

Wouters’ repeated denials of any problems in the morale of the public service are troubling. He based these on the feedback from the Blueprint 2020 exercise, saying that he was unaware of any problems. This is important as morale is linked to motivation and performance. But Blueprint 2020 was not designed to provide any evidence of this. Better sources are the 2008 and 2011 public service surveys. Although no data was collected on either survey directly regarding morale, other results indicate serious problems. Almost 30% of employees reported harassment in the previous two years. This is a bad sign, with consequences for organizational culture, performance, and accountability. A colleague once told us, tongue-in-cheek, “The second most used tool in the federal government, after computers, is harassment.”

Confidence in leadership is a dismal 50% in both surveys. Worryingly, executives rated quality of management about 25% higher than the rest of the employees surveyed. This suggests that the management cadre as a whole has lost touch with the staff that do the actual work. Moreover, 42% of employees didn’t feel that management led by example in ethics. Again, executives saw themselves as about 20% more ethical than staff did.

And, interestingly, fewer than half of employees felt in 2011 that they had control of their work. Research has shown that control of work is a key driver of job satisfaction.

So Wouters’ use of Blueprint 2020 to bolster his claims of leadership and solid morale ring loudly hollow. Indeed, one wonders whether the survey results might have been even more damning of senior leadership if the survey had been taken out of their hands entirely, to ensure that the best and most relevant questions were asked.

What Blueprint 2020 does show is that the senior public service is still attracted to fluffy proposals that have no real hope of transforming the way government works. As Michael Hatfield very ably argued in last week’s Hill Times, Blueprint 2020 also demonstrates the government’s suspicion of the professional public service and any expertise it may have. Contributors to the Blueprint whose ideas were singled out for recognition wrote about expanding the development of policy beyond the bureaucracy and internal collaborative tools.

Much is missing from any of the “top” proposals selected. There is no mention of using new technologies to provide more public access to government records beyond the much-criticized existing open government initiative (which provides little useful data). Access to such data is, one would think, important to informing external policy input. The UK and the US have much more open government regimes with far greater public involvement. Isn’t that what serving the public is all about?

There is no proposal to rebuild technical expertise and evidence-based decision making, both of which have suffered. Glaringly absent: The promotion of ethics and eliminating toxic workplace environments that breed harassment, These alone would likely do more than any other measures to improve workplace morale and performance.

Currently the PS is blindly married to the mid-20th Century hierarchical command and control management model, emphasizing obedience. There was no mention of public servants acting as professional, collaborative moral agents in their own right. The older model worked well 60 years ago when deputy ministers came from the departments they led and knew what they were talking about (or whom to ask). This rarely happens today. When an official can jump from, say, Health to Veterans Affairs, how can they be expected to know what is good and bad policy, and whose advice to trust?

None of the arguments above are original, and many have been repeated in more detail and with more force by experts and academics. Our perspective is that of accountability. In the past decade, we have seen increasing attacks on dissenters and whistleblowers with countless stories of dysfunctional workplaces and decision making sometimes so irrational that even the governing party’s ideology can’t explain it. This must change. Adding a few tools and technologies to a structure that has been undermined in much more fundamental ways will do nothing. That things seems stuck in place, with no improvement and no hope of change, is Wouters’ responsibility, and that of every senior executive in government. Based on his recent comments, though, the blinders are and will be on well past 2020.

This piece was first published in the Hill Times on June 23, 2014.