Ottawa’s plan to pay cash for cost-cutting ideas is doomed to fail

Government culture punishes whistleblowers, rather than rewarding them

By Sean Bruyea And Allan Cutler Edmonton Journal July 4, 2010

The federal government’s hope to save money by rewarding public servants with cash incentives for cost-cutting ideas hinges on one integral premise: that they will be willing to come forward and speak out against the status quo.

This premise is even more important as Canada just finished hosting the “accountability”-themed G8 summit. Can the Canadian government speak with confidence that civil servants who dare to hold the government accountable can do so without fear of reprisal?

Unfortunately, our government has an abysmal record of listening to concerned federal employees brave enough to speak up.

Far too many federal employees who care enough to suggest positive change and/or report mismanagement are quickly isolated. Their work and characters are attacked in an effort to wear them down.

Dr. Kenneth Westhues, of the University of Waterloo, has written extensively on this phenomenon of “mobbing.”

His conclusion about such groupthink, animal-like behaviour: It is far more prevalent in the public service than the private sector.

Wherever the mobbing occurs, it is not only devastating to the individual, but also to group morale.

When public servants speak out against mismanagement, we refer to them as “whistleblowers” — a term often negatively imbued.

The government, on its part, is quick to label a whistleblower as someone who has an axe to grind or who is seeking attention.

Nothing can be further from the truth. Research has repeatedly shown that whistleblowers are above-average performers who have a strong belief in moral principles and who are committed to the organization.

Attacking conscientious civil servants who speak serves not only to destroy the will of the employee to continue working, but also such ad hominem attacks cloud the issue confusing most onlookers. However, the government’s message to other employees is clear: people who care enough to speak out are punished.

In consequence: Canadians become disillusioned about the public service as a whole. We tend to perceive most government workers, rightly or wrongly, as anecdotally inefficient, apathetic, selfish, pampered, overpaid and lazy. It is no wonder the Canadian public is far from enthusiastic about rewarding public servants for a job they should already be doing.

How then will a cost-cutting program, which relies upon public servants coming forward, succeed in such an oppressive culture? Such a culture jeopardizes the success of the cash-for-ideas program before it has begun.

The sponsorship scandal in Canada showed us that Canadian civil servants can muster true courage and speak up about mismanagement.

More recently, most Canadians rallied around Richard Colvin. We saw government attacks on Colvin’s character for what they were: attempts to distract us from government mismanagement of the Afghan detainee issue.

This government implemented legislation and a Public Service Integrity Commissioner, purportedly to protect whistleblowers in a civil service where 400,000 employees are responsible for administering more than $50 billion in annual expenditures. However, in the three years since taking office, the commissioner has apparently not found one incident of government wrongdoing, nor has she apparently identified one whistleblower who needed protection.

In such an unsupportive atmosphere, it is unlikely that most federal civil servants will jeopardize their career, retirement, health and dignity to confront a system merely in the hopes of receiving a cash incentive, especially when any protection is either too weak or non-existent.

In this light, what the Canadian public may see as apathy or lethargy in the civil service is instead a culture which breeds unquestioning obedience to managers. This saps the very individualism and innovation which might spawn the creative ideas to save money and report mismanagement.

Imagine instead a government culture which encourages open discussion and cultivates creative suggestions for improvement and cost-cutting. Imagine aggressive laws which protect those who speak up. Imagine a Public Service Integrity Commissioner who actively seeks out and supports those who have been threatened, bullied, harassed and intimidated while vigorously investigating and pursuing those who create this culture of fear.

This is the type of government which would see every level of our bureaucracy burst forth with creativity and innovation to inspire efficiency and improve services. This is the kind of government which would be a model of accountability not just for three days in June 2010, but for the entire world for decades to come.

In Denmark and many other countries, a “whistleblower” is honoured and seen as a “witness” to wrongdoing and therefore an agent of positive change.

It makes good economic and social sense to protect those who come forward with innovative ideas, as well as those brave enough to report wrongdoing. In that sense, all government employees could aspire to be “whistleblowers,” responsible for serving the Canadian public as the namesake public service workers truly wish to do.

Sean Bruyea is a freelance writer and retired Canadian Forces Intelligence Officer. Allan Cutler is the president of Canadians for Accountability, a grassroots organization for whistleblower protection

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