Public servants angrily complaining of “toxic” workplaces at agencies upholding human rights in Canada and integrity in government have sparked calls for more rigorous screening of the political appointees picked to head federal agencies.
The complaints of workers at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal sound eerily similar to the poisoned workplace Auditor General Sheila Fraser found when she investigated harassment complaints against Public Sector Integrity Commissioner Christiane Ouimet.
“When half of the staff at the human rights tribunal disappear, that’s alarming, said Milt Isaacs, president of the Association of Canadian Financial Officers.
“When you see smoke like that, it should be investigated and there should be a more extensive vetting of these people’s management style. They may be great experts and know human rights, but that doesn’t make them good managers.”
The fit of candidates for patronage appointments has been a long-standing debate. It surfaced when privacy commissioner George Radwanski left under a cloud over his spending and Fraser called his tenure a “reign of terror.”
After her probe into Ouimet, Fraser urged MPs to examine the appointment process and how character and behaviour are assessed when screening candidates for such senior management posts.
She said personality didn’t change overnight and perhaps flags could be raised by more thorough checks into past performance. She found Ouimet, a career bureaucrat, was an abusive manager.
Ottawa Centre NDP MP Paul Dewar said turmoil at key institutions like the human rights tribunal and the integrity office raised questions about where public servants could turn when they face problems in the workplace.
“We need confidence in these institutions and procedures, but if they are dysfunctional because they don’t have the appropriate people then we have an institutional cancer that grows,” Dewar said.
He said he’s worried there are toxic workplaces and bad managers across the public service because of the number of calls his office receives about problems.
Governor-in-council appointments are made by the prime minister in consultation with bureaucrats at the Privy Council Office, who do the checks. Some appointments are reviewed by MPs, but they largely rely on PCO screening.
Penny Collenette, a lawyer and academic at the University of Ottawa who was director of appointments for the Jean Chrétien government, said candidates are rarely screened for their people management skills and they receive no training on how government works.
Private sector recruits are the least prepared for such a large bureaucracy with a slew of rules, written and unwritten. They arrive in Ottawa with no friends, allies or mentors.
“Those with no experience dealing with the public service or running an office in Ottawa have … a big learning curve,” said Collenette.
“The knowledge people must or should have about unions, dealing with the public service and managing people is never part of the job description and we see it time and time again.”
Those plucked from the bureaucracy, like Ouimet, also face huge challenges. They grew up in the system, share its culture, made friends and enemies on the way up and may not have the independence, objectivity and aggressiveness to take on the system and former colleagues.
Add to that suspicions about political credentials and fitting in can be rocky, said Collenette.
And if problems do crop up, they often don’t get addressed before they erupt into the political arena.
With so many possible pitfalls, Collenette said the government should offer training and mentors for political appointees — as well as political staff — on how to manage within such a complex organization.
“I’d love to see government have proper training, in-depth training about machinery of government, the different actors and players, where to turn, how to speak up and deal with journalists,” said Collenette.
Unions say they have fielded a barrage of complaints from workers at the tribunal, alleging abuse of authority, intimidation and personal harassment.
More than half of the 25-member staff, including middle- and senior-level managers, have left or taken stress leave in the past year. At least three have filed formal harassment complaints against chair Shirish Chotalia.
Unions have worked together since September to press the government to order an independent investigation.
Errol Mendes, a professor of law at the University of Ottawa, said candidates for quasi-judicial bodies like the tribunal should be vetted and selected with the same rigour applied to judges.
He said an investigation should be called into how the chair and tribunal members were selected. A big concern about political appointees, especially for quasi-judicial bodies, is whether they are independent enough to stand up to the government.
“If things are going wrong we should find out if the appointment system was at fault,” he said.
He has sounded the alarm that Conservatives are politicizing these appointments by turning over the membership on these quasi-judicial bodies after members serve a single or short term.
Unions leaders say they’ve seen no sign that the tribunal’s turmoil is the result of government interference. Several said they’re worried the government’s antipathy for human rights issues is the reason nothing is being done to fix the situation. Unions have been relentless critics of the Harper government for “destabilizing” human rights organizations and women’s groups in Canada.
The influence of political leadership, however, does affect how executives manage the public service, said Isaacs.
“Right now we have a public service that has tucked its tail in and put its head down to weather the storm. That doesn’t serve Canadians well.”
An intimidated public service is not only bad for morale but it also chips away at the fundamental role of the public servants to give open, honest and fearless advice.