The Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner was created by the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act, often referred to as the “whistle-blower” legislation, which came into force in April 2007. Christiane Ouimet, the Office’s first commissioner, spoke with Robert Beaudoin.
Why was the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner created?
My office was created to address the important need for a safe, confidential and independent mechanism for public servants and the general public to disclose wrongdoing committed in the public sector. It was also set up to provide essential protection against reprisals for public servants who disclose wrongdoing. Our ultimate goal is to help enhance public confidence in the integrity of public servants and our national institutions, whose role is so vital to the health, safety and security of Canadians.
Your 2009 report stated that “success in implementing the Act will come from the efforts of a large number of people working together. It is only if everyone…plays their parts.” Have you seen this support for your efforts at all levels of the government and the bureaucracy?
My office is only two years old and my mandate extends to over 400,000 public servants. The Act expressly recognizes that chief executives and central agencies play key roles in making this new system a success; I cannot do it alone. One of my priorities is prevention. But moving this forward requires a cultural shift across the public sector which, no doubt, will take time. However, I am very encouraged by the commitment and the continued efforts of our key stakeholders over the last two years; and I do look forward to continued collaboration and partnership with them. By playing each of our roles with dedication, commitment and professionalism, we will succeed.
You further stated that “it is in the public interest to maintain and enhance public confidence in the integrity of public servants.” In your experience, was there a crisis of confidence in the Canadian public service? Can you discuss some of the more important issues that you have to deal with as the Integrity Commissioner?
The preamble of our Act speaks directly and eloquently to this. It states that it is in the public interest to maintain and enhance confidence in public institutions and in the integrity of public servants. This is the spirit that guides our actions.
Without getting into specific details of the cases we deal with and recognizing the important confidentiality protections of our Act, I can say that those who have come forward to my office include both public servants and members of the general public from across the country. They have raised a wide range of concerns about any number of public service activities and areas of responsibility. These include procurement, public safety and security, systemic human resource concerns and the integrity of program administration. We have also received complaints of reprisal, which are dealt with on a priority basis.
You have indicated that you have a particular interest in focusing on middle managers. Why?
As stated in my first annual report, middle managers are the culture carriers of the present and leaders of the future. They are at the forefront of the important mission of building trust in our public institutions. As well, they are the key to preventing wrongdoing in the workplace by leading by example, by learning and promoting open dialogue at work.
Can you comment on people’s fears about reporting wrongdoing? How can you get them to overcome these fears?
Disclosing wrongdoing does take courage. Public servants have three options for reporting wrongdoing: they can go to their supervisor; to the designated senior officer responsible for internal disclosure in their organization; or directly to my office. The choice is theirs. And they do not have to exhaust internal avenues before coming to us.
When they do come, we work carefully to ensure that their particular situation is fully analyzed and understood, and that they are aware of our responsibilities and our options to respond to their concerns. The public interest ultimately guides us in all cases.
Is there a process in place that protects employees against unfounded or unwarranted allegations?
Allegations of wrongdoing are serious. They cannot be taken lightly. We are responsible for protecting the interests of those against whom an allegation is made and whose reputations and careers may be at stake. This includes ensuring the right to procedural fairness and natural justice for all persons is respected, including those who are alleged to be responsible for wrongdoing, and for protecting, to the extent possible, the identities of those involved in a disclosure.
Before launching a formal investigation, we complete an independent fact-finding process to determine whether there are sufficient grounds for further action and what that action should be. Each case is assessed on its own facts and analyzed against the requirements of the Act.
Does every federal department need to provide training sessions on the issue of integrity to its employees? Has this been done and what assistance does your office provide to these groups?
Under the Act, the Treasury Board minister is responsible for promoting ethical practices in the public sector and a positive environment for disclosing wrongdoings by disseminating knowledge of the Act and by any other means he or she considers appropriate. However, this responsibility is shared among chief executives, who also have specific responsibilities in implementing the Act, including establishing internal disclosure procedures and designating senior officers responsible for handling disclosures. On an annual basis, organizations have to report on their internal disclosure activity to the Treasury Board Secretariat, just as my office must report annually to Parliament.
We see a key role for ourselves in assisting public sector organizations in implementing the Act. My office has been involved in outreach efforts to raise awareness of the Act and is available for consultation and advice to anyone who might need it. My office also has specific responsibilities to assist those organizations that have, due to their small size, exempted themselves from the obligation to designate a senior officer. Again, different players have different roles, but they are mutually supportive and complementary.
How do you measure the success of what you do? Can performance measures and indicators be developed to determine how government is doing?
My annual report to Parliament presents an overview of the work of my office. Given the nature of our work, we cannot measure success with numbers only. Our overall goal is to build public trust in the integrity of our public institutions. Prevention remains at the heart of our work. It is an essential part of the added value we bring to public administration.
We are also exploring the possibility of contributing key questions to existing government surveys in order to assess the impact of our activities. We are currently exchanging information with our provincial and international counterparts, who are also concerned about how to establish useful success indicators, including indicators of cultural shift.
Responsibility for implementing the Act is shared. Success will have to be measured by taking into account the combin