Currently, there are ten organizations at the federal level that function as Agents of Parliament (APs). Most of the APs such as the Auditor General, the Chief Electoral Officer, and the Information Commissioner have been in place for many years while others are more recent creations of the federal government. Over the past 30 years, the number of APs has expanded. This has created a constellation of organizations that account directly to Parliament on various elements of government activities.
Their role has grown so dramatically that some observers have suggested that the APs have fundamentally changed from being “Parliament’s servants to being Parliament’s masters” and have taken on the role of “federal watchdogs.” As a result, there continues to be some question of the appropriateness of APs involving themselves in the public arena by issuing reports and drawing attention to issues that have traditionally been the purview of opposition parties holding governments to account.
One AP that has been has been in the news recently is the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commission (PSIC) which is one of the smallest and least visible of the APs that were created by the Harper government. The PSIC owes its existence to the bitter and public controversy over the spending habits and managerial behaviour of George Radwanski who headed the Privacy Commission (itself an Agent of Parliament) from 2000 to 2003. The purpose of creating the PSIC in 2007 was to encourage employees to report instances of inappropriate behaviour in order to create a work environment within the public service where dialogue on values and ethics is encouraged and where employees are comfortable raising their concerns without fear of reprisal.
To achieve this goal, the mandate of the PSIC is to encourage federal employees to disclose information that they believe could show a “wrongdoing has been committed or is about to be committed in the federal public service or that they have been asked to commit a wrongdoing.” The Act enables PSIC to protect employees against reprisal and guarantees due process for those who are involved in disclosures or reprisals.
In its ten years of operation, observers of the PSIC have noted that despite its $6.2 million annual budget and a federal public service workforce of almost 400,000 employees, it has investigated only 13 cases of wrongdoing over this time period.
In an effort to develop a better understanding of why there were so few cases of wrongdoing to investigate, the PSIC conducted a number of focus groups in 2015 about its effectiveness in meeting its mandate. The research revealed that despite the existence of the agency, it is still difficult to encourage employees who have legitimate complaints to bring them to the agency for adjudication. Moreover, focus group participants felt that communicating instances of wrongdoing would be an effective way of sanctioning bad behaviour. They also said that they were concerned that disclosure of cases of wrongdoing might undermine the public’s confidence in the public service of Canada, hence their reluctance to draw public attention to problem behaviour.
A recent Audit Committee report identified several additional challenges to PSIC’s ability to carry out its mandate. Committee members concluded that there was a risk that federal employees were not aware of PSIC’s services, employees were reluctant to take advantage of PSIC’s services, and, in the future, PSIC “may not be able to attract and retain the right people with the appropriate mix of skills.”
Finally, the House of Commons Operations Committee has announced that it is going to conduct a much-delayed review of the PSIC and its legislation. So far it seems to me that external witnesses have pleaded with the Committee to make fundamental changes in order to bring whistleblowing out of the shadows.
Looking at these developments prompts a number of general question about the role of APs and their relationship with Parliament. First, are there now too many APs for Parliament to effectively use in executing its role of holding the government to account? Second, is there a more effective way to promote positive change by involving Parliament more constructively through the more judicious use of Parliamentary Committees? Third, are the mandates of the APs too amorphous and should an effort be made to refashion their objectives in light of the many changes that have taken place in public administration over the years?
At this point, APs have enabling legislation that guarantees their independence from government. In reality, however, it appears that they have too few arrows in their quiver to meet the expectations that were set for them when they were created. 2017 might be a good year to have a look at these important public institutions and review their potential to meet the expectations that accompanied Parliament’s decision to create them in the first instance.
David Zussman is a Senior Fellow in the Graduate School
of Public and International Affairs at the University of
Ottawa, Adjunct Professor at the University of Victoria, and Research Advisor to the Public-Sector Practice of Deloitte. firstname.lastname@example.org