Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I'm accompanied today by Hélène Laurendeau, senior vice-president of policy; Gerry Thom, vice-president of staffing and assessment services; and Gisèle Côté, director general, finance and administration.
I would like to thank you for this opportunity to meet with you today to discuss our main estimates and our report on plans and priorities for 2013-14. The PSC is responsible for promoting and safeguarding merit-based appointments that are free from political influence, and in collaboration with other stakeholders, for protecting the non-partisan nature of the public service. We report independently to Parliament on our mandate. We also administer programs on behalf of departments and agencies that recruit qualified Canadians from across the country.
Under the delegated staffing system set out in the Public Service Employment Act, the PSC fulfills its mandate by providing policy guidance and expertise, conducting effective oversight, and delivering innovative staffing and assessment services. In our main estimates for 2013-14, the PSC is authorized to spend $89.9 million, and in addition, it has the authority to recover up to $14 million of the cost of our counselling and assessment services and products provided to federal organizations.
As a result of the spending review of 2012, our budget is being reduced by $8.9 million, to be implemented over three years. Last year, our reductions were $2.2 million, with another $2.2 million to be reduced this year, and $4.5 million to be reduced next year.
Of the 88 positions that were to be eliminated, 38 were achieved through vacancy management and attrition. Of the 50 employees affected, 27 have been placed in other positions, 18 have opted to leave the public service with the assistance of transitional support measures and education allowances, and we are still working on the placement of the other five employees. As a result of these reductions, in 2014-15, the PSC will have the equivalent of 874 employees, as compared to 922 for this year.
Mr. Chair, during the past year, the Public Service Commission devoted considerable attention and effort to provide policy guidance and supporting tools to departments and agencies as they implement workforce adjustment. We will continue to provide this support, in collaboration with the Treasury Board Secretariat and the Canada School of Public Service as well as other stakeholders.
Today, the staffing system is adapting to a changing environment, most notably, a smaller public service and a reduced level of staffing activity. In 2011-2012, just prior to Budget 2012, we found that the number of employees who come under the Public Service Employment Act had fallen by 2.4%. We also reported that overall hiring to the public service had fallen by 10.3%, although student hiring has declined the least. We are now reviewing the data for the past fiscal year and we will be providing a full assessment in our 2012-2013 annual report, to be tabled this fall. We look forward to discussing those results with your committee.
Now, I would like to turn to our strategic priorities for this year.
Our first priority is to provide ongoing independent assurance to Parliament in relation to the performance of the staffing system under the Public Service Employment Act. In doing so, we continue to focus on and further improve our core activities. We have had seven years of experience in implementing our responsibilities under the revised Public Service Employment Act.
Our outreach and interaction, along with our monitoring, audits, investigations, and studies—all of these activities provide opportunities for us to examine lessons learned and to identify areas for improvement and to take concrete action. We now have a unique opportunity to take advantage of our expertise to improve our processes, with the goal of developing a more efficient and integrated approach to our oversight and delivery functions.
We will continue to adapt our oversight activities, policies, and services, in line with a maturing staffing system, and to meet the evolving needs of departments and agencies. We will continue to work closely and collaboratively with organizations to help them build a stronger culture of prevention and compliance, while we continue to deliver on our fundamental responsibility to provide independent oversight and assurance to Parliament.
Our second priority is to continue to enhance the priority administration program, which allows the public service to redeploy skilled and experienced employees. The implementation of workforce adjustment has resulted in an increased number of surplus employees and laid-off individuals who are eligible to be appointed ahead of all others to vacant positions in the public service, provided they meet the essential qualifications of the positions.
We have made policy, program and service improvements to provide greater access, fairness and transparency, with the objective of placing as many priority persons as quickly as possible.
Mr. Chair, there are currently about 2,900 priority persons, an increase of 60% since last April when 1,800 persons had priority rights. Since April 2012, 956 priority persons have been redeployed into new positions. Most of them, around 70%, were employees affected by workforce adjustment.
At the same time, we've also seen a drop in the placement of other priority persons, including a significant decline in the placement of Canadian veterans who have been medically released. We have been monitoring the situation very closely, along with Veterans Affairs, which has overall responsibility for policy and programs for Canada's veterans. At its request, the PSC provided technical advice regarding this priority entitlement to Veterans Affairs for its consideration. We are ready to support the implementation of any additional measures.
Our third priority is to work with stakeholders to foster increased awareness regarding political activities and to help public servants better understand their legal rights and responsibilities under the PSEA. We will continue to collaborate with organizations, communicate regularly and improve our tools. We must increase awareness of non-partisanship as a core value of the public service.
We have recently launched a revised self-assessment tool, to help public servants make informed decisions about engaging in a political activity. Employees will be able to better assess whether their participation in a political activity could impair, or be perceived as impairing, their ability to perform their duties in a politically impartial manner. This comprehensive tool provides public servants with a detailed assessment including a more realistic rating with respect to their participation in certain political activities. The revised tool was launched as a one-year pilot and we will use this experience to identify further improvements.
I would like now to turn to our responsibilities under the Employment Equity Act. The PSC is responsible for identifying and eliminating barriers in recruitment and staffing, and for developing policies and practices that promote a more representative public service. Overall we found that members of three of the four designated employment equity groups continue to apply and be appointed to the public service at proportions exceeding their respective workforce availability. The exception is for the recruitment of persons with disabilities who continue to be under-represented in terms of applications and appointments.
To continue our work, we are conducting a study on the rate of promotions from the employment equity perspective and on how members of the designated groups perceive the appointment process. We are nearing completion of this study, and its findings will be published in our annual report in the fall. This should help inform future discussions in this area.
We also have important responsibilities to support official languages. Our staffing policies clearly stipulate that all communications with candidates in appointment processes must be done in the official language of their choice. In our oversight we also verify that individuals meet the official language requirements for public service jobs. We are also responsible for developing language tests to assess second language proficiency against the standards set out by Treasury Board. These tests ensure that the second language requirements for bilingual positions are assessed fairly and consistently.
The PSC is committed to enabling departments and agencies in building a workforce to meet the current and future needs of the public service.
We will continue to foster strong relationships with all stakeholders, including parliamentarians, departments and agencies as well as bargaining agents, so that Canadians will continue to benefit from a professional and non-partisan public service.
Thank you, Mr. Chair. My colleagues and I would be pleased to respond to your questions.
Good morning, Mr. Chair and members of the committee. I am very pleased to be here on your invitation to discuss our main estimates for 2013-14 as well as our recent achievements. I am accompanied by our Executive Director, Ms. France Duquette.
You may recall that my first involvement with the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner dates back almost two and a half years ago, first as Interim Commissioner and then as Commissioner on a seven-year appointment approved in Parliament in December 2011. The office was created in April 2007 as part of the Accountability Act and I am only the second person to hold this position.
Our dual role under the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act is to receive and deal with disclosures of wrongdoing allegedly taking place within the federal public sector and to handle complaints of reprisals sustained as a result of having made a protected disclosure. While public servants may blow the whistle within their own organization, they often come to us as we are independent. However, we are the only ones responsible to investigate allegations of reprisals.
The number of disclosures made to my office has doubled in the last three fiscal years, and I believe that this is attributable to our increased profile, as well as to the growing sense of confidence within the public service—and, hopefully, the public sector at large—as to our professionalism, discretion, and efficiency.
The office currently employs 28 public servants, and we also retain private sector resources from time to time to supplement our expertise. As of now, since the inception of the office, we have received close to 450 disclosures of wrongdoing and over 150 complaints of reprisal. Our current budget is sufficient to meet our workload, but based on intake trends it is quite possible we will one day have to ask for additional resources.
When we receive a disclosure or a complaint of reprisal, my role as commissioner is to first decide whether the case warrants a full-fledged investigation, and after one has been launched and concluded, whether on the balance of probabilities a wrongdoing has been committed, or in the case of an allegation of reprisal, whether there are reasonable grounds to believe that reprisal action has taken place.
In the last 13 months, we have tabled five cases before Parliament following a finding of wrongdoing involving staff at HRSDC, the Laurentian Pilotage Authority, CIDA, CBSA, as well as the former chair of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. We have also referred three cases of reprisals to the special tribunal created by our governing legislation. As of March 31, 2013, we were actively investigating 22 allegations of wrongdoing and seven complaints of reprisals, and I aim to complete all of these investigations by the end of the year.
Since my appointment, we have focused on recruiting a sufficient number of competent employees to fulfill our mandate. Our positions are currently staffed with highly skilled individuals, and last year we experienced a perfectly normal rate of attrition. This explains why we were able to complete 38 investigations in 2012-13, as opposed to a total of 22 in the first five years of the existence of the office.
We have recently adopted formal service standards guaranteeing—barring exceptional circumstances having to do with complexity or scope—that we will make decisions whether to launch an investigation within 90 days and no more than 90 days, and that all investigations will be completed within one year of being launched.
It's important that people who come to us, as well as those against whom allegations are made, find out in a reasonable period of time the outcome of our work. I'm sure you can appreciate that blowing the whistle requires a lot of courage, and that being the subject of an investigation is often a stressful experience; hence, the need to act expeditiously but with rigour.
I am proud to have been chosen as leader of a dedicated group of employees who are committed to the implementation of the will of Parliament and to the contribution of the enhancement of public confidence in the integrity of the public sector. I believe we are starting to demonstrate—in conjunction with senior officials across the system—that the act can work. We are dealing with a complex piece of legislation and often with sensitive situations requiring a lot of skills and attention. I hope you share my sense that things have improved significantly over the last two years, as well as my confidence in the future of the office.
Seven provinces have now adopted similar legislation. This is also a recent trend across many nations in the world. The full potential of whistleblowing regimes will only be achieved over time and after several cultural, legal and organizational obstacles have been resolved.
I look forward to your questions and comments.
At the moment, there are 375,000 public servants at the federal level. We try to reach them through our website. That is our vehicle of choice because it is everywhere and it does not cost very much. We also try to reach them through events, meetings and gatherings, which can sometimes bring together hundreds, if not one or two thousand public sector employees. We go with our kiosk, our brochures, and so on.
Next year, we are also going to try to provide online access to anyone who wants to get information on a possible disclosure or who wants to make one. We have to make it easier to do. We have a toll-free number and a whole range of ways to get in touch with us. We have the ability to respond to the calls that we receive in 24 hours at most. I think that we have what we need.
Whistleblowing is very difficult. It takes courage and confidence. Whistleblowing is risky. In the public-sector culture, it is always risky to disclose wrongdoing. People have to be sure that information is going to be treated confidentially and that, to the extent possible, the complaint is going to be looked at quickly.
The commissioner's office is committed to ensuring confidentiality and to dealing with complaints as quickly as possible, professionally, and with a high level of service. This is an act of faith. There will be more and more situations in which whistleblowers will be able to see that we have been up to the task.
For example, the last report that we submitted two weeks ago involved people in a very difficult situation at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. They saw that they could trust us. The Public Service Alliance of Canada also stated that the very difficult situation at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal had been dealt with appropriately throughout.
I think that word of mouth and the passage of time are going to help us a lot in winning the trust we need.
First of all, everything we do in this office—I do and the office does—is governed by the statute, which is a very detailed statute and provides the commissioner with a lot of discussion vis-à-vis how to use those limited resources that are available to make those decisions.
A case comes in typically in writing. It is typically incomplete. So there's an intake officer who basically reviews the content of the disclosure, determines whether additional information is needed in order to properly analyze whether it falls within our statute and gets the additional information, comes to.... There are sections in the act that allow the commissioner to.... First of all, there are sections that say I can not deal with something, for instance, that's currently before a court. That's one example where I have an absolutely mandatory obligation not to investigate.
I have a number of situations where I have to weigh whether it's sufficiently important. So if you have a disclosure involving a very small sum of money, I have to make a decision as to whether it's worth investing in an investigation. Or if something has taken place a long time ago, that's another factor that the act indicates I should take into account in determining whether to investigate.
There are situations where we very often find ourselves in a situation where another duly established body could deal with it. For instance, if somebody comes to us and discloses an allegation of racial discrimination for instance, the act makes it clear that I may decide to simply indicate to the person to go the Human Rights Commission, which is equipped to handle those complaints.
The same is true of staffing irregularities. We do receive several cases every year in which the central issue is one having to do with staffing. In which case I typically refuse to deal with it and indicate to the person that they should go to the Public Service Commission, which is much better equipped to review staffing matters.
That's how we do it. The commitment is to make this decision in no more than 90 days so that the person actually knows where her complaint or his complaint is going.
Thank you for the question.
Mr. Chairman, actions speak much louder than words. The best publicity we will ever generate for the effectiveness of the office is the case reports we table in Parliament. Two and a half years ago we had tabled no case reports in Parliament, ever. We have done five in the last 13 months and we have several in the pipeline as we speak. I think actions speak louder than words.
Second, in our daily dealings with the people who come to us, it's important that a professional approach be taken. We have recruited staff who are appropriate for taking that approach. Word of mouth will work.
A third step I've taken is to create an advisory committee, which meets periodically, to demystify. Within the confines of confidentiality there is very little I can say about a case closed, of course. The contents of a case are completely confidential. But three of the major unions within the public sector have joined the advisory committee as well. My hope is that they will better understand our mandate and will do some outreach also on behalf of the office. These are PSAC, PIPS, and APEX , which is not a union—it's the Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service of Canada—but it has been attending each meeting of the advisory committee.
It's to demystify, to have an ongoing communication, and hopefully to become known for what we can do—and also to explain what we cannot do, because there are limits to our mandate as well.
Just to follow up on some of my colleague's comments, I would argue that many public servants who have been put in a situation in which they are whistle-blowing would disagree that 60 days is sufficient. When talking with the Public Service Alliance of Canada as well, and others within the public service, I find that they have concerns respecting that delay.
It has been six years plus, and in other jurisdictions research shows—for example, in the U.S. and Australia—that about 12% to 23% of public servants observe wrongdoing that they consider serious. We're still at a very low number, and I know that you're making efforts to reach out and to raise awareness and that you need more resources to do so. Perhaps part of the problem is with respect to public servants' level of confidence, given cases in the past, that they will be protected if they indeed decide to bring up wrongdoing. Perhaps that is the issue here.
You don't really have a lot of power to do something. You can refer them to a tribunal, if there are reprisals. Only three cases have been to the tribunal, and to my knowledge no one has ever been sanctioned. Your American counterpart has taken more proactive measures; for example, injunctions against employers to prevent dismissal of whistle-blowers while investigations are under way.
What more can you do? Do you think, first of all, that whistle-blowers are really protected?
What more could you, or the law, be doing to protect them, in your opinion?