Three weeks ago, Sylvie Therrien, a federal Employment Insurance fraud investigator, was fired for leaking documents that exposed a quota that she and her coworkers were required to meet. She is the latest victim of a continued war against whistleblowers in the federal government, one that has not slowed despite the passage of the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act in 2007. Her case, both tragic on a personal level and disturbing on a public level, says much about the culture of the senior public service.
When questioned about the matter Ms. Therrien brought to light, the government claimed that it wasn’t a quota, but rather a target. Furthermore, it argued that it was justified in firing her because she had ignored internal avenues of dissent and had released documents not intended for public disclosure.
These claims need to be examined in a broader context in order to understand how weak they are. Ms. Therrien exposed a directive which targeted EI recipients in a manner that created a moral hazard for government fraud investigators: that is, they were being given an incentive to make decisions based not on the merits of a case, but to meet a quota (or target) for which they would be rewarded. It’s easy to see how less scrupulous investigators could cut off benefits and leave it to recipients to fight the system to get them back.
Unsurprisingly, most Canadians haven’t even blinked at this chain of events: very few would ever be the target of such an investigation and so few see a pressing need to pay attention. They’re also distracted by the Senate scandal. But they should care because of what it says about government priorities and how they operate.
Compare this policy, for example, with the cavalier manner in which this government has treated offshore tax evasion. It came under fire for weak enforcement last Spring. Few were convinced of the promised action. We at Canadians for Accountability certainly weren’t: UBS whistleblower Bradley Birkenfeld, who gave the U.S. government a list of names that helped it recover billions of dollars from offshore tax cheats, also provided Revenue Canada with a list. He tells us he was never contacted and that it appears that nothing was ever done with the information. This contrast begs the question: in terms of recovery value, where would government staff be better placed – chasing EI recipients for a few thousand dollars a year, or chasing the wealthy for tens or hundreds of millions? And what does the current arrangement say about government priorities?
Furthermore, the government’s claim that documents were not intended for public disclosure is a tacit admission that it wanted the policy kept secret. This shows that they knew the public wouldn’t approve. But citizens have a right to know how their government is being run in order to be able to hold it to account. And how is the public to know if a policy like this is in effect? A whistleblower may be the only way for it to find out.
Behind the reasoning of the government there is also the assumption that Ms. Therrien should have been loyal to the Minister, and that she betrayed that loyalty. This is a favourite justification for reprisals. But such loyalty has its limits, as even Treasury Board admits: public servants also have a loyalty to the public. And this was no routine, vanilla policy; it was a specific, secret policy that had the potential to make innocent victims of already disadvantaged Canadians. If that seems melodramatic, consider a hypothetical equivalent: what if Revenue Canada implemented a secret policy to audit all same-sex married couples? (No such policy exists.) Canadians would be outraged and would certainly accept that a whistleblower exposing the policy had acted in the public interest.
Officials also argue that Ms. Therrien should have used internal avenues to express her dissent. But such mechanisms generally provide little protection against reprisals and are often intended only as window dressing – or, even worse, as traps. It doesn’t take a genius to see what the environment is and to realize that going public may be the only way to get a problem fixed. Research shows, in fact, that it may be more effective to do so. In any event, Ms. Therrien claims she did try to raise the issue internally, and suffered reprisals as a result.
Nor can she expect assistance from Integrity Commissioner, Mario Dion. His office has made it clear that it cannot (or will not) investigate issues of “policy”. But while making such distinctions may be a convenient way to avoid controversy, they are not ethically defensible. And while the framing of the PSDPA may indeed tie Mr. Dion’s hands, he has not been an outspoken advocate for the kind of changes that would be needed to offer Ms. Therrien, and others like her, protection.
That the government has used its heaviest hammer, and used it in a way that impoverishes Ms. Therrien for taking a principled stand, shows – we would argue – just how out of touch and brutal the executives involved are. There seems to have been no consideration of what her intentions might have been, of her past performance, or of whether she was suffering from workplace stress. The excuses given suggest that there was no soul-searching about the morality of the policy, either. And, sadly, past experience suggests they will fight tooth and nail to keep Ms. Therrien out, no matter what the cost.
Canadians for Accountability considers this an outrageous abuse of authority, done for no better reason than to protect senior executives and politicians and dissuade others from speaking out on other issues. But then perhaps they have a good reason to act so forcefully: they’ve never been held to account before, so why should they worry now?
This piece was first published in the Hill Times on November 18, 2013.