Highlights from the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner’s Report on the Culture of Whistleblowing in the Public Sector

A report was recently released by the Federal Public Sector Integrity Commissioner (PSIC) which discussed the culture of whistleblowing in the Canadian Federal Public Service. TShieldhe PSIC commissioned Phoenix Strategic Perspectives Inc. to perform the research and draft the report.

For the purposes of background, a “whistleblower” is not not a term that is specifically defined in the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act. However, what is defined is a “public servant” and what is called a “protected disclosure”. The protected disclosure is what they are alerting the PSIC or senior management to. So long as they make the disclosure in good faith and it meets the conditions of the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act they are to be protected from reprisals.

For the purposes of this post we may define a whistleblower as a public servant who has made a protected disclosure.

The key positive message from the report was that there was a greater openness and receptivity to the idea of whistleblowing. The participants attributed this to:

  • More information and messaging about whistleblowing;
  • More emphasis on values and ethics in general, as well as inclusion of the topic of whistleblower policies in training on values and ethics;
  • Greater openness and receptivity to discussions about whistleblowing, including more discussions between managers and employees about the topic.

Most participants described their own attitude towards whistleblowing in the public service as positive. They viewed whistleblowers as “courageous” and that they display courage and professionalism. Managers also cited their duty to report wrongdoing.

Indeed, specifically with economic wrongdoing and fraud it remains an offence under the Financial Administration Act for a “person acting in any office or employment connected with the collection, management or disbursement of public money” to fail to report a contravention of the Financial Administration Act (or any revenue law of Canada) to their supervisor. That means with respect to fraud in the Federal Public Service, there are both whistleblower policies and legislation requiring public servants to come forward if they have information. See section 80(1)(e) for the clause.

The report clearly highlights that there is some work left to be done on the whistleblower regimes. The individuals interviewed described several key considerations which would limit the likelihood of their disclosing a wrongdoing. Those included:

  • Possibility of reprisals or retaliation;
  • Possibility of repercussions;
  • Power relations between the individual whistleblowing and the individual accused of wrongdoing;
  • Confusion over what constitutes a wrongdoing;
  • Determining if there sufficient evidence of wrongdoing;
  • Negative connotations of whistleblowing, which may seem in contradiction to the courageous view that some participants took of whistleblowers.

The Public Sector Integrity Commissioner himself has indicated that he will make recommendations for changes to the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act when it is next under to parliamentary review.  For the current process on how the PSIC handles complaints and deals with reprisals, see the flow chart they provide on their website, which is here.

In fact, this is a time of significant study of whistleblower regimes in both the public and private sectors, see our previous blog post on whistleblower guidelines for resources on this topic. In addition, Fraud Magazine, a publication of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners also recently published an article on employee’s distrust of hotlines and how organizations can work to increase the effectiveness of whistleblower regimes.

While there are new proactive analytics tools available for catching fraud and wrongdoing they will be a compliment to whistleblowing, not a replacement. The integrity framework includes well thought out policies; well educated investigative, compliance and audit staff;  training for staff on what constitutes wrongdoing; whisleblower mechanisms; and properly implemented audit and other forms of proactive monitoring programs. For now, as of the 2016 Association of Certified Fraud Examiner Report on Occupational Fraud and Abuse still ranks tips as 39.1% of how all frauds are detected, making it by far and away the most successful means of fraud detection (for now). It is very important that this key component of the integrity framework be handled properly.