Restoring trust – Canadian Government Executive

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June 9, 2013

Restoring trust

The Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner of Canada (PSIC) was created in 2007 so federal public servants and members of the public would be able to disclose potential wrongdoing in the federal public sector. In 2010, the Auditor General of Canada severely criticized the first Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, Christiane Ouimet, for her treatment of staff and the poor performance of her office.

Her replacement, Mario Dion, took over in December 2010, two months after Ouimet left the office. He spoke to editor-in-chief Toby Fyfe about his progress in rebuilding the organization.

Your predecessor was forced to resign after the Auditor-General report. What shape was the organization in when you arrived?

When I was approached to be the interim commissioner, I had an image of Hiroshima, to tell the truth, the picture of the day after Hiroshima. Then I met with a few senior officials before my appointment was announced to do a more facts-based assessment of the situation and I was pleased to see that the office was not fully staffed. There were in fact more than half the positions vacant, which is a good thing because you can build on it.

Number two, the people who briefed me were competent people who had answers to virtually every question I asked them. And then the same morning the government announced my appointment, I met with the whole staff of the office and had a very positive impression.

But there were several problems. Half of the positions were not being staffed, so that was a problem since turnover of more than 10 percent is a symptom of a problematic situation. Point two, there was no systematic approach to the management of the work. There were important shortfalls in the consistency with which each process made it through to lead to a decision. I think there were 14 people when I came in; there are currently 32 with the same budget.

Those 14 must have been shell-shocked.

They were shell-shocked because losing your leader is a stressful situation. Not knowing who will replace her is also stressful. And the image of the office was at an all-time low, which is always a difficult situation, especially for innocent staff members who hadn’t done anything wrong.

You set up an advisory committee that included David Hutton, the executive director of FAIR, the Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform. The organization had been critical of your office before and continued to be so. You eventually asked him to leave the advisory committee. Do you regret that decision?

Not at all. The decision was made after thoughtful consideration of all the factors. Given the nature of what we do, the image of the office is very important. We have to create and maintain a sense of trust, confidence. To blow the whistle is a difficult thing to do and you must feel some confidence vis-à-vis the organization that you go to.

My objective in inviting David, as well as several other people, to the advisory committee was to repair one of the chief accusations made against my predecessor, which was a complete lack of transparency. The bridges had been burned, essentially. So my purpose was to provide an opportunity for some dialogue to try to demystify what we do and don’t do, and to hear what the stakeholders had to offer by way of advice vis-à-vis a proper approach to managing the office.

Often shortly after meetings I would read in the press criticisms of the office arising directly out of something heard at the advisory committee meeting. I thought this was in direct conflict with the objective I was pursuing and so I made the decision. There was some flack but I could not go on like this.

I think other members had a sense of release since what we discuss in the committee is now not secret – I never assumed it would be secret – but there’s now a little bit more ease in airing points of view.

One of the ongoing criticisms is that you do not have enough power. How do you respond to that?

You know, everybody would like to have more power. Parliament, in its wisdom, passed this act in 2007. I have the power to find out the truth and to report it to Parliament. And then things can happen afterward depending on what Parliament does with it. Media exposure has already led to tangible impacts on wrongdoers; people who have been found to have done wrongdoing have suffered consequences as a result of a report, even though I don’t have authority to terminate their employment or discipline them or fine them.

I’m happy with what I have. I’m trying to maximize the power to generate more confidence in the integrity of the public sector with the powers I do have.

You had three challenges and I’m going to ask you about each one. The first was to improve the culture of the organization, to repair what you’d found when you came in. Is there more that needs to be done?

It’s not over. It’s just two years, so not that long ago. We have true dialogue between the commissioner and each employee. I feel I have a good sense of who’s working on what, basically, at any given point in time. I have an open door policy. I have professional discussions with a good number of employees each day of the week. That’s the nice thing about having a small case load: I actually happen to know each case that we’re currently working on. I really enjoy those professional discussions and I think they do too.

A survey was conducted awhile ago on the degree of satisfaction within the office, with excellent results. The last public servant survey was very positive as well. And, the turnover rate last fiscal year was eight percent, which is including one person who retired. Eight percent, when you have 32 people, only takes 2.5 people so the turnover rate is now normal. And, I think people are proud of our achievements, as we have had five case reports tabled in Parliament; there were none when I walked in.

Your second challenge was to increase the performance of the organization. How satisfied are you with progress?

We continue to receive more and more disclosures. That’s a sign of confidence, I think. The annual number of disclosures has doubled in the last two years. And last year we had 39 investigations, compared to 10 the year before, compared to two the year before that.

So I think in terms of productivity those are clear numbers. And we’ve managed to deal with 170 files: it was 110 the year before that, 55 the year before that. These are raw numbers, of course, and don’t say anything about the complexity of the files, but I’m proud of those achievements.

The third challenge you had was to improve trust in the organization.

One of my fears after the scathing Auditor General’s report in 2010 was that no one would want to send anything to this office. It did not happen. It has increased, as I have told you.

I think I’ve met with 30 executive committees or staff groups in the public sector in the last year to try to not only share information about who we are and what we do, but also to try to give them some feeling about the person who’s leading this organization at this point in time. And I intend to do the same thing this year, to continue to go to various organizations to allow them to judge for themselves whether they should have any confidence in our organization should they come across a situation that calls on them to avail themselves of our services.

What would you like to be able to say about your tenure when you finish your term in 2018?

What I’d like to see in 2018 is people’s cases being dealt with in less than one year, and I’d like to see us being taken seriously within the federal public sector. Already we’ve adopted a service standard: we are saying that within 90 days we will make a decision as to whether we do a full-fledged investigation of anything you come to us with, and we’ll never take more than one year to investigate. So, I think timeliness is a key ingredient of confidence.

I think in 2018 I would be happy if we had the professional image of an organization that is trying to do justice in the federal public sector in concert with senior management and the various departments and agencies in a way that is efficient and cost effective.

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