Mario Dion has been noted for the fresh approach he has brought to his office since his appointment as Chairperson of the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB), Canada’s largest independent administrative tribunal, in January 2015. Mr. Dion came to the IRB with almost 35 years in the federal public service. A Montréal native, Mr. Dion obtained a law degree from the University of Ottawa in 1979 and began his career as a legal advisor at the Ministry of the Solicitor General. Within eight years, he was named ADM of Communications, Evaluation and Research at Corrections Canada. His career took him to the Department of Justice, the Privy Council Office, and finally to the role of Deputy Minister of Indian Residential Schools Resolution of Canada. In 2006, he was named Chairperson of the National Parole Board and between 2011 and 2014 was Commissioner of Public Sector Integrity. Patrice Dutil, Editor of Canadian Government Executive, caught up with him to talk about leadership, the IRB, and his drive to innovate.
Q: Your career is an interesting blend of legal work and adjudication, but you also occupied positions where you had to deliver programs. How do you think this affects your approach at IRB?
A: It’s important for me to fully understand how we link program delivery and adjudicative decision-making. The work of the Board combines both of these concepts, and sometimes they are strange bedfellows. Let me explain: As an independent tribunal or, more precisely, four distinct tribunals grouped together in one Board, the IRB must protect the impartiality of its decision-making. This is paramount, whether it at is the Refugee Protection, Refugee Appeal, Immigration or Immigration Appeal tribunals. Canadians must trust that all of our adjudicators base their decisions solely on the merits of the case, on the evidence presented, and that they are free from political influence or any other improper influence. That’s number one. It’s important to understand this.
Q: How do you keep your independence from government?
A: The Board is built on its independence and its credibility depends on it. Imagine the absurdity of a tribunal whose decisions purposely reflect government policy. How misguided would it be to refuse refugee applicants from a country because our government and their government disagree on a trade issue? But improper influence can also come from within. An adjudicator hearing an appeal of a refugee claim must not be influenced by an adjudicator who decided the claim in the first place. We are very careful to prevent this from happening and we have policies and training in place to safeguard against this. We must be ever vigilant.
Q: What is your philosophy of leadership?
A: I have been a student of leadership for my whole career—I even tweet regularly (@mariodion1956) on the hows and whys of good leadership. My philosophy of leadership is based first and foremost on never being totally satisfied with my own level of achievement. I adhere to the maxim that there is always room for improvement. Keep it simple. Don’t overthink direction as a leader. Maintain constant connection with employees. Be personable and approachable. Respect each person’s professional expertise and welcome their individual contributions. If your staff are scattered over a wide area, see them face-to-face periodically. Invite and record their feedback. Act on their concerns; don’t just pay lip-service. Always bear in mind that nothing is impossible to those who do not have to implement it.
My philosophy of leadership is most reflected in the “Quality Workplace Commitment” we have put in place at the IRB. This endeavour cascades from the most recent Public Service Employee Survey (2014) and the Blueprint 2020 initiative which prompts even well-rated workplaces like ours to do better. In my regional visits, I sit face-to-face with employees who openly share their concerns. You cannot succeed as a leader if employees are not part of the conversation. For personal rapport to thrive in a bureaucracy, people must come first, process second. As a government leader, I believe in putting personal aspirations and fleeting accolades second to meeting the legitimate needs of people. As a leader, I serve Canadians, including the Canadians who work at the board.
Q: What do you think are the most pressing issues facing the IRB in the next five years?
A: The record movement of people-in-crisis worldwide continues to be a major challenge. We are following through on the three-year review of systemic reforms implemented in 2012. The reforms set time periods for the processing of refugee claims and created a new appeal tribunal. The reforms exerted operational and resource pressures that the Board must keep striving to balance. Maintaining an adequate complement of adjudicators is a crucial challenge. It’s a daunting task of working through the backlog of claims that have already been made while managing a daily intake of new claims.
Q: So how important is speed in a tribunal like this?
A: I am acutely sensitive to the need for speed: claimants should not have to wait unreasonable lengths of time to have a hearing. We schedule hundreds of hearings a week. We try to overcome language barriers in explaining our procedures to people from distant lands. Sometimes there are absences, sometimes a missing document. Hearings must sometimes be rescheduled. We like to think we are in control all the time but, in a complex environment, we can’t always be. There are too many variables in a system that so many claimants move through in a year. In our world, we must achieve a balance between doing things well and doing them quickly—without ever sacrificing fairness. We appreciate that for thousands of claimants, getting them scheduled and into our hearing rooms as quickly as possible is paramount. Often they have come a long way. They have left troubled places. We do our utmost to work promptly and competently, but the reality is that our intake is variable, and when it exceeds our capacity, backlogs will inevitably accumulate. We try hard to keep things moving and alleviate the stress and frustration that can affect hopeful claimants.
Q: Seems like impossible work. How do you keep staff motivated?
A: We have a Quality Workplace Commitment and it’s front and center. I am convinced that the sort of work environment we provide determines the level of service we give to Canadians. An excellent workplace inspires excellent service. That is our mantra. It must ring loudly from my desk, from the desks of each of my executives and managers and from the desks of all of our dedicated and deserving staff members across all four of our tribunals. We must remind ourselves constantly that a high-quality workplace is paramount and work relentlessly to put thought into action.
Q: The IRB’s Vision Statement says that the IRB will be “a leading edge administrative tribunal and a creative partner in building the future of the Canadian immigration system.” That’s a really tall order for administrative tribunals, which are not known to be innovative or creative. What are your priorities?
A: As Canada’s largest administrative tribunal, I think the IRB proudly sets an example. While not as obvious as at research and development organizations, creativity and innovation on a daily basis are very much a part of what we do. We developed our own system for tracking our thousands of cases in detail each year. We adopted LEAN management, a board-wide, cutting-edge approach to setting priorities, channeling resources and measuring success in program delivery. We equipped our hearing rooms with digital audio-record technology to transcribe our proceedings.
Q: How are you adapting to new ICTs?
A: We installed videoconferencing technology which allows employees to communicate across our three regions on a more frequent and productive basis. I am a fan of video as a tool for simultaneously reaching our widespread internal audience. I frequently broadcast important messages in this way. We continuously work to perfect the video technology that allows claimants to appear remotely at their hearings while the adjudicator presides in a distant city. We use social media tools such as Twitter to share important information quickly on key issues. We are at the forefront of administrative innovation and a leading authority within the Canadian immigration system.
Q: Let’s talk about the people who do the adjudication. What are you doing to ensure that they are well equipped and that their decisions are fair?
A: We have developed and continue to develop some of the most advanced adjudicator guidelines and training programs in the world on the law, cultural sensitivity, gender awareness and decision-making. Our guideline on sexual orientation and gender identity will serve to enshrine best practices in a manner that is transparent to the parties who appear before the Board. I am also updating our detention guideline to reflect a more precise balance between release and public safety. The proposed guideline will soon be shared internally and with our stakeholders and then finalized with the added insight. We are starting to take a proactive approach to shaping our own jurisprudence. We do this by having panels of three-members hear cases where there are novel issues to be decided or there are inconsistencies in the law. A decision of a three-member panel can then provide guidance to other decision-makers who may have to deal with similar issues in the future.
Flexibility, sensitivity and responsiveness rank high among our hallmarks. My priorities are to lead a board at which unbiased and highly competent adjudicators are sensitive to the diverse and often highly traumatic backgrounds of refugee claimants; whose bright, competent and diverse employees are fully engaged; whose stakeholders are fully informed; and with whose decisions Canadians feel secure and comfortable that their money is well-spent.