POLITICS
02/02/2012 04:24 EST | Updated 04/03/2012 05:12 EDT

Study shows bureaucrats still fear blowing whistle despite 'ironclad' protection

OTTAWA - Federal public servants remain fearful of disclosing wrongdoing, years after Stephen Harper's Conservatives rode to power promising protection for whistleblowers.

A government-commissioned study completed in December 2011 found that most federal workers see job reprisals as the likely outcome of any effort to expose a wrong.

In fact, bureaucrats said they believe that it's typically the whistleblower who gets punished.

"Most employees think wrongdoing in the federal public sector is under-disclosed," says the report, released Thursday.

The study, based on 10 focus groups with civil servants across Canada, was commissioned by the troubled Public Sector Integrity Commissioner's office in the wake of a devastating 2010 audit and last year's resignation of commissioner Christiane Ouimet.

Ouimet was forced to step down after the auditor general found that she "yelled, swore and also berated, marginalized and intimidated" staff and "engaged in reprisal actions" against those she believed had complained about her conduct. More than half the small office staff turned over in a single year as a result, said audit.

The integrity commissioner's office commissioned a study last November to gauge public-service perceptions.

Most of the focus group participants had served at least 10 years in the public service, and more than half were over the 20-year mark. They painted a dismal picture.

Under the heading "lessons learned," the study summarized civil service perceptions with five bullet points:

— "Don't stick your neck out."

— "Disclosing a wrongdoing is a career-limiting move."

— "There is no real protection for disclosers of wrongdoing."

— "It's typically the disclosure of wrongdoing that gets punished, not the perpetrator(s)."

— "These types of stories never end well."

The communications director for Treasury Board President Tony Clement said the government will study the findings.

"In response to the sponsorship scandal run by the former Liberal government, we created the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner to guarantee transparency and accountability in Canada's public service," Jennifer Gearey said in an email.

"Our government will study the Commissioner's recommendations and act accordingly to continue to build on our efforts to increase transparency and accountability for Canadians."

Protection for those who expose government wrongdoing was a key plank in the 2006 Conservative platform, and the Harper government later assured Canadians it had made good on the promise.

"We have worked to protect whistleblowers by passing ironclad protections for those whistleblowers in the Federal Accountability Act," Pierre Poilievre, then the parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, told the Commons in 2007.

But NDP critic Charlie Angus said the climate for whistleblowers may now be worse than ever.

"I actually think we're further behind, from my talks with senior civil servants," Angus said in an interview.

"They say it's never been like this, because of the continual blurring of the lines between the ministerial-political function and the civil service."

The focus group study doesn't provide evidence that the Conservative measures have had any positive impact.

The report states that "most employees see reprisals for disclosing wrongdoing as a real possibility, primarily because of the subtle form they can take."

Stalled careers, poor performance appraisals and ostracization were among the perceived risks.

Civil servants also couldn't identify mechanisms for disclosing wrongdoing, despite the Conservative creation of the integrity office for just that purpose.

And when study groups were made of aware of information on the integrity commissioner's office, they did not appear impressed.

Noting that the commissioner has only 35 employees to deal with 400,000 public servants, the "impression of participants" was that "the Office could not be very effective."

Suggestions from civil servants for improving the office's communications included providing statistics on the outcome of investigations — "e.g. number of cases processed, proportion of successful cases."

In fact, the audit of December 2010 found that 228 allegations of wrongdoing or complaints of reprisals against whistleblowers were brought to Ouimet's office during her three years as commissioner. Just seven files were investigated and no findings of wrongdoing were ever made.

The only direct quote in the focus group report from a participant stands in stark contrast to the audit numbers.

"Show me that these stories have happy endings," said the unidentified bureaucrat. "Show me the discloser who got a promotion and the wrongdoer who lost his job."