Opening Remarks - Joe Friday

Standing Committe on Government Operations and Estimates

March 26, 2015, 8:45 a.m.

Thank you, Mr. Chair. And thank you to your Committee members.

Mr. Chair, I would like to address as a matter of priority, my absence at your meeting of March 12, and my serious concern that there may be any thought that I disregarded your request that I appear or that I was in any way under the impression that I had the choice of whether to appear or not.  

As I stated in a letter that I sent to you on March 13, there was, unfortunately, a misunderstanding about the purpose of my appearance at that meeting, and what I had understood to have been an agreement that I would not be appearing.  

Again, I apologize. I assure you of my respect for your Committee and of my absolute understanding of my obligation to appear before you.

I am very honoured that the Prime Minister has proposed my appointment for the position of Public Sector Integrity Commissioner. This nomination follows the completion of a publicly advertised process last year.

The position of Commissioner is that of an Agent of Parliament, one of a small number of oversight offices which exercise important and sensitive functions in the federal public administration, functions that require objectivity, neutrality and independence.  I fully understand the importance of the position and of the function of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, and I would be honoured to bring to it the full benefit of my experience, ability and dedication.  I also wish to underscore my full understanding that as an Agent, I am directly accountable to Parliament.

Our Office was created in 2007 under the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act, as part of the federal government’s accountability initiative. The Office provides a safe and confidential mechanism for public servants and members of the public to disclose wrongdoing committed in the federal public sector. The Act also helps protect from reprisal public servants who have disclosed wrongdoing and those who have cooperated in investigations. 

The position of Commissioner plays a central role in the accountability framework for the federal public sector; it represents a commitment to excellence in public service; and, increasingly, it forms part of the identity of Canada in the world as a trusted leader in good government and good governance.

If my appointment is approved, my commitment will be to represent the public interest in carrying out the important and sensitive duties of the Commissioner, reporting, as all Agents do, directly to Parliament.

During my 7 years at PSIC, first as General Counsel, then as Deputy Commissioner, and now as Interim Commissioner, a position I have held since January 1 of this year, I have a thorough and informed understanding of not only the structure and operation of our disclosure and reprisal regime – the whistleblowing regime – but also its role in underscoring and demonstrating the essential trust that Canadians place in public institutions and public servants, and the necessity of not only maintaining, but strengthening that trust. 

Attaining these goals requires careful judgment, knowledge of the working of the public sector, and a balanced and objective approach to decision-making on matters of significant importance.

I understand that it can be extremely difficult for someone to come forward when they have witnessed what they think is wrongdoing; I understand that reprisal can take many forms and requires a direct and clear response to not only address an individual situation effectively, but also to discourage it from happening in the future; and I also understand that all parties, including those accused of having committed wrongdoing or reprisal, have the right to be treated with fairness and justice. 

The role of the Commissioner, as an independent decision-maker, is a challenging one.  The whistleblowing landscape is one that is, in many ways, relatively uncharted.  Expectations and perceptions have to be sensitively and carefully managed. But with a sustained focus on accessibility, clarity and consistency, I know that our office can succeed in addressing wrongdoing and responding to reprisals as a means of building the continuing strength of the public sector.

It has been 8 years since the Office was created.  We have had many tangible successes in those 8 years, in the tabling of case reports, in the referral of reprisal cases to the Tribunal specifically created in our legislation to determine and rule upon those cases, in the conciliation of some of those cases to the satisfaction of the parties, and we have also had success in our sustained outreach to inform Canadians about our existence and our mandate.  The true measure of our success, in my view, is that we treat each case fairly, rendering decisions on issues of significant public interest and importance, in a just and equitable manner. 

If my nomination is accepted, I would follow my predecessor, under whose leadership I was able to proudly contribute to the strong foundation of policy and operational rigour that we have today. As the new Commissioner, I would continue to build on and expand that success.

My priorities are grouped under the principles I mentioned a few moments ago:  accessibility, clarity and consistency.  These principles, while distinct, are intrinsically linked. 

Accessibility, which is linked to awareness and knowledge, is a priority that I believe will be a permanent one for us. It is a goal and a challenge that is shared by our colleagues in the provinces and the territories, with whom I meet on a regular basis, and it is shared by our international counterparts, many of whom I am also in ongoing communication with. 

Quite simply put, people have to know who we are and where to find us when they need us.  They have to understand their options under our legislation to make an internal disclosure within their Departments, or to come to us. And they have to understand what we can and cannot do for them when they decide to come to our Office.  Our efforts must continue to reach out and to clarify, and also to reassure. 

Further in this regard, I will also focus on the continuing challenge of ensuring that our work is informed by other relevant perspectives and opinions.  Our External Advisory Committee, started in 2011, will continue and it will continue to grow.  It provides us with essential external points of view, and it allows us to be aware of the influence and effects of our actions.  In this regard, an increased focus on the input and views of federal unions will be a priority for me as Chair of this Committee. 

Looking to the internal operations of our Office, we are in a position to take stock of our considerable experience and build on the lessons we have learned to date, including guidance from the Courts. To that end, I have focused on making progress on our internal policy-making process, bringing together our operations, legal and policy teams to produce directives to guide operations more directly and more strategically, and also to provide potential users of our regime with clarity on our interpretation and application of the law – we want people to make informed choices about coming to our Office.  Knowing what to expect is a key part of that. 

This builds on our work in recent years in creating and publicizing service standards – timelines that we have imposed on ourselves to complete initial analyses of files and also to complete investigations. 

Mr. Chair, my focus will also not waver in regard to the standards of professionalism and excellence of our staff.  The work we do is difficult. Our relatively small team is stronger than it has ever been.  We have hired strategically and rigorously, and I have learned that attracting the right people and keeping them is a significant challenge for a small organization such as ours.   

After 8 years, our caseload appears to be steady, although we do not control the pace or number or type of disclosures.  As things stand today, we have proven we can work within our current budget. 

We are prepared for the review of our legislation that is mandated by the Act, and at the time of that review our Office will be pleased to share our observations and suggestions, based on our work to date, that will inform possible amendments.  We are continuing to prepare ourselves for the review:  generally speaking, I can say at this point that our focus will be on improving confidentiality protection and providing support to complainants of reprisal in an effort to allow them to access the full benefit of the protections under the law.  I would say, with confidence, that our Act is working, but I would also say that it can work better.  And it is the responsibility of any Commissioner to ensure that it is working to its full capacity and potential.

Our work requires knowledge of the structure and operations, and indeed the culture, of the federal public sector. I am certain that my 22 years of federal experience will be of essential importance in fulfilling the Commissioner’s duties under the Act.  I have demonstrated my objectivity and my independence in the work I have done with PSIC to date, most importantly in those cases in which I have been the decision-maker on founded cases of wrongdoing.  I rely on that experience, on my judgment, as well as on my legal training to guide me in this regard in fulfilling the role of Commissioner.

I am asking you to place your trust in me, and to allow me and my capable, dedicated and experienced team to fully implement the Act over the next seven years in supporting the goal of accountability in the public sector.  I wish to underscore that the vast majority of public servants serve Canadians with integrity and an honourable sense of service. 

My goal as Commissioner would be to ensure that Canada’s proud tradition of public service not only continues, but that it is strengthened, and that it is exemplified by the highest degree of respect for and compliance with standards of integrity, professionalism and respect.

Thank you very much for your consideration of my appointment.

Mr. Chair, it would be my pleasure to answer any questions Committee members may have.