Thank you very much.
Thank you for this opportunity to address you on important matters of proper relationships and conduct of work in Canada's national government.
My strong interest in federal government matters dates back nearly half a century. I was a public servant from 1973 to 1994. After that, much of my work as a management and communications consultant was for federal government clients, including Parliament itself. I have been very active at the Ethics Practitioners’ Association of Canada for the last 10 years, including five years as president. We have workplace and retired members from the public and private sectors, and our educational activities have been much appreciated by public servants wishing to reflect on the ethical dimensions of their work.
This background allows me to highlight various dimensions of ethical conduct of public servants in relation to Parliament, ministers and cabinet, but I'm not an expert in conflict of interest legislation, structures and procedures or in the details of the present case. Rather, I hope to elucidate the context of the work done by public servants in a professional and ethical manner.
I'll end with five recommendations.
First, trust is essential to a successful public service. The public must trust the government in order to have smooth, constructive relationships between government and society. Without trust, you can't have peace, order and good government any more than you can have an efficient commercial marketplace. This is why it is essential to keep private interests out of government decision-making and operations. Conflict of interest, whether real or merely potential or apparent, can destroy the public's trust in the government to act in its interest. Therefore, avoiding the appearance of conflict of interest is no less important than avoiding its actual occurrence.
Second, non-partisan public servants and elected representatives must collaborate in the work of government. There needs to be clarity about their complementary roles and operating principles. That relationship was articulated in a careful and inspiring manner in “A Strong Foundation”, a 1996 report on public service values and ethics. Besides stating values that you want to find in every workplace and pursuit, such as integrity and respect, it sets out what it means to be a professional in public service within Canada's democratic system.
Third, key mechanisms have grown in this area since that time. There are, for instance, mechanisms for accountability, conflict of interest of both politicians and public servants, and protecting individuals who disclose wrongdoing from reprisal. There is also a solid set of best practices to encourage ethical conduct in organizations. Some of these are the articulation of values and codes of conduct; training and dialogue; counselling and mediation services; and how to manage conflicts of interest in, for instance, small communities where officials frequently have to deal with friends and relations. Ethics officials throughout the federal government have a network through which they share insights on all of this. Our association gives them the opportunity to do the same and to learn from the experiences of those in other sectors.
Fourth, an organization can have a code of conduct, a statement of values, or both.
Codes of conduct spell out a bottom line of rules and norms. Compliance is the issue, and we ask if this or that behaviour passes or fails a norm, if it obeys or contravenes a rule, and what the sanctions or consequences are for transgressions.
Statements of values, on the other hand, articulate the aspirations of an organization. The right questions to ask for these are about how well this or that behaviour embodies our ideals, and how we could do better. This is the realm of learning, improvement and celebrating excellence.
To my mind, an organization needs both. Being serious about ethics requires having a bottom line of acceptability and sanctioning what falls below that line, but organizations must aim higher than mere legality; otherwise, they won't inspire initiative and excellence in their personnel.
Fifth, what happens in an organization reflects its culture. Culture exists at all levels and is constantly shaped by behaviour at all levels, but the key factor is leadership, the tone at the top. Culture cascades; the ethics of senior leaders is signalled by their actions even more than by their words, and it filters down throughout the organization.
Sixth, a key spot where the ethics rubber meets the road is in speaking up, in raising an issue that could meet with resistance and could make the speaker unpopular or worse. A teacher and researcher in the United States named Mary Gentile discovered that people often know what's right and want to do it, but feel awkward about speaking truth to power even if the culture accepts it. Her “giving voice to values” practice involves a person reflecting on their moral courage, developing personal scripts for speaking up, and then rehearsal and practice. Her approach has a worldwide following, including in some business schools and in other uptake in Canada. The capacity to speak truth to power is needed at every level from junior staff with supervisor problems to interaction between a minister and his or her deputy. By the way, I have nothing personally to gain in publicizing her work.
Seventh, speaking up is necessary for cleaning up. Secrecy allows things like bullying and fraud to continue in the dark. However, secrecy is entirely different from confidentiality. Confidentiality is an absolute necessity for public servants to be able to give honest advice to ministers and for ministers to seek it.
Now I will share my five recommendations. The first two are specific to conflict of interest.
Number one, lest conflict of interest ever be overlooked, it should be standard procedure for all cabinet meetings that the chair of the meeting begins by raising the issue of conflict and inviting recusal.
Number two, there could be a similar process at the departmental level. When helping the minister to prepare for a cabinet meeting, the deputy minister's written or personal briefing of the minister could include a reminder along the lines of “please assure yourself that you are not in conflict of interest regarding these agenda items”. This should be seen as part of the deputy's support to a minister.
Number three, requests to a department from a minister or cabinet can be as broad as “provide feasible options for achieving x”, but the request can also be as narrow as “conduct due diligence on choice y for achieving x”. In order to give the best possible advice, in order to speak truth to power and protect ministers from possible risks, the deputy's response to a narrower request could add any other pertinent intelligence that departmental staff can generate.
Number four, public servants sometimes feel inappropriately pressured when making decisions or providing information or analysis. Of course, they should respect their values and ethics code and resist pressures to contravene it. At the same time, other parties should also respect the code and not try to have public servants deviate from it. A statement should be added to the code addressed to anyone who deals with the public service to the effect that “it is a violation of this code to pressure a federal public servant to contravene it.” This is compatible with current instructions to ministers and ministerial staff.
Number five, an ethical culture is sustained by constant dialogue concerning “the good” as well as specific instruction on norms, values, structures and processes. Senior leaders should provide the tone from the top by supporting and participating in such dialogue and training constantly.
In conclusion, I believe that Canada's public service has the capacity to provide expert and ethical service. If that is what parliamentarians want, they should support it, they should insist on nothing less, and they should never ask for anything else.