Our public service needs servicing

Improvements are hard to make when whistleblowers are punished and misconduct is covered up

By Sean Bruyea and David Hutton, Special to the Vancouver Sun July 14, 2010

The recent announcement of cash rewards for public servants who suggest improvements in the federal government is naive at best and disingenuous at worst, given the prevailing management culture within Canada’s public service.

Canadians have long been soothed by platitudes such as the claim that we have the best federal public service in the world. Unfortunately such hype sidesteps very real and serious government failures and misconduct: the tainted blood scandal, the sponsorship scandal, the billion-dollar gun registry overrun, and the Air India bombing, to mention but a few. Yet this has not stopped the steady flow of feel-good messages fed by the wellspring of Ottawa’s more than two dozen federal departments, claiming all is well in our country’s administration.

How can departments be expected to recognize and tackle problems of waste and inefficiency (and negligence) when their main focus is on persuading the public (and themselves) that there are no problems in the public service? How can employees be expected to suggest opportunities for improvement when such behaviour is often viewed by management as a hostile act and punished accordingly?

Following the sponsorship scandal, a newly elected Conservative government created the position of Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, whose mandate is to protect government whistleblowers and investigate their allegations of wrongdoing. If the commissioner were doing what Parliament has legislated the office to do, one of the most preventable causes of government waste — misconduct by corrupt or incompetent managers — would be fully scrutinized and investigated.

Yet in the three years that her office has been in operation, the commissioner has reported a grand total of zero cases of wrongdoing. This is remarkable considering that she has jurisdiction over about 400,000 federal employees in a system that spends about half a billion dollars every day, on everything from paper clips to patrol boats. Is it possible that no one has seen any wrongdoing, that none of this vast flow of money has been wasted or misappropriated?

If the federal government is working perfectly and there is no wrongdoing, how are any of the public servants going to find inefficiencies in such a bureaucratic paradise? How can a culture that claims everything is working fine admit that it needs fixing or improving?

The reality is most public-service employees want to be valuable contributors to Canada’s prosperity.

Most of these employees already have the knowledge and ideas necessary to improve our government. But a culture of fear, control and denial of problems is a powerful deterrent to those who would like to come forward, whether with innovative ideas, to report wrongdoing or simply to report preventable waste.

How intimidating is this culture? Surveys show that more than one in four government employees has experienced harassment in the past two years, most frequently at the hands of their bosses.

This epidemic of intimidation has been steadily worsening over the past decade. And far too many who report waste or wrongdoing are subjected to vicious, career-ending reprisals in the workplace, designed to crush and silence them.

Departments frequently deploy the full force of their legal resources to attack those who come forward apparently to make an example of them as if they were traitors.

When Foreign Affairs whistleblower Joanna Gualtieri reported waste and extravagance in the department’s accommodations for Canada’s diplomats abroad, she was intimidated, harassed and then forced out of her job. When she was left no option but to take Foreign Affairs to court, government lawyers used endless legal manoeuvres to drag out the pre-trial process forcing her to answer more than 10,500 questions over 12 years.

Seventeen years after she first reported government waste, Justice Department lawyers settled just before the case was to go to court — thus preventing the public from learning the full facts.

In such a culture, why would any government employee risk his or her career to report bureaucratic waste?

How can a quest to find efficiencies succeed when blatant management misconduct is covered up and whistleblowers are punished instead of the wrongdoers?

And should we be rewarding already well-paid public servants for merely doing their job?

If there is any hope of improving government efficiency, it is to encourage a culture of ethical behaviour and to foster the individual moral strength necessary so that all feel free to speak out on issues of mismanagement.

This process must include vigorously protecting honest employees against reprisals by dishonest or incompetent managers intent on silencing them.

Only then will the federal government start receiving the long-suppressed flood of ideas that can make the bureaucracy more efficient — perhaps even as efficient as Canada’s government claims it is.

Sean Bruyea is a freelance writer and retired Canadian Forces Intelligence Officer who writes about issues of governing with a conscience. David Hutton is executive director of FAIR (Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform).

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