Open letter to head of B.C. Public Service Agency calling for update and investigation

 

November 10, 2015

 

Lori Halls

BC Public Service Agency

810 Blanshard Street

Victoria, BC V8W 2H2

 

Dear Ms. Halls:

I am writing to you in your capacity as deputy minister, B.C. Public Service Agency, in regards to the March 2013 Review of the Draft Multicultural Strategic Outreach Plan (the Dyble report) and Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham’s October 2015 report: Access Denied: Record Retention and Disposal Practices of the Government of B.C.

These reports – and the issues raised in them – are neither new to government nor to your office. One of your predecessors, Lynda Tarras, was part of the review team into the multicultural strategic outreach plan lead by John Dyble, deputy minister to the premier.

That report found several breaches of the public sector agency’s standards of conduct – some deemed serious – by some political staff and some government employees.

The report’s recommendations, included:

  1. Improve the standards of conduct for political staff.
  2. The chief of staff should set expectations for all political staff to ensure that all financial and administrative policies of government pertaining to procurement, records management and the supervision of government contractors are followed without exception.
  3. The head of the public service agency should conduct a review of the various policies in place to govern the Standards of Conduct for both political and public service staff across other Canadian and international jurisdictions and make recommendations to the Cabinet on potential legislative and policy changes in B.C.

Following its release on the 14th of March 2013, the premier’s chief of staff, Dan Doyle, addressed the recommendations in a memo to staff. He wrote: “the Dyble report recommends that we clarify the lines for political staff and we will do that.”

On the same day, B.C. premier Christy Clark assured the public that her government would adopt all of its recommendations.

It is difficult to understand how the 2014 transgressions – that commissioner Elizabeth Denham reported on last month – could have happened, given these commitments.

In light of her findings, a report from your office on the follow up to the 2013 recommendations would be beneficial for the public, specifically on the recommendations that “the standards of conduct for political staff be improved,” and that your office should “conduct a review of the various policies in place to govern the Standards of Conduct for both political and public service staff across other Canadian and international jurisdictions and make recommendations to the Cabinet on potential legislative and policy changes in B.C.”

Even though standards of conduct for political staff were posted on April 17, 2014 (see Appendix A), there still seems to be a disconnect among some as to what those standards mean and how they will be enforced.

The standards of conduct for public employees and political staff are clear. The preamble is lofty and admirable:

This policy statement…supports the core policy objective that “public service employees exhibit the highest standards of conduct.”

Their conduct must instill confidence and trust and not bring the BC Public Service into disrepute. The honesty and integrity of the BC Public Service demands the impartiality of employees in the conduct of their duties.

The requirement to comply with these standards of conduct is a condition of employment. Employees who fail to comply with these standards may be subject to disciplinary action up to and including dismissal.

As is the oath for political staff (Appendix B) which reads, in part:

I will honour and faithfully abide by the Standards of Conduct for Political Staff, and to the best of my ability, act with integrity, putting the interests of the public and the public service above my own personal interest; and conduct myself honestly and ethically, in a manner that maintains and enhances the public’s trust and confidence in the Province of British Columbia and does not bring it into disrepute. 

I trust you would agree that in the specific context that these comments were made and coming as they did after April 17, 2014:

“This is Fight Club. And the first rule of Fight Club is we don’t talk about Fight Club” or “You do whatever it takes to win”

are not consistent with that oath.

The March 2013 Dyble report found that “partisan activity among some officials breached the public service standards of conduct and some government resources were misused.” Several other breaches were identified, some deemed to be serious.

In August 2013, commissioner Denham pointed to “an acceptance and familiarity within government of the practice [use of personal email accounts] of evading freedom-of-information requests.”

Commissioner Denham raised similar concerns in 2014.

I would draw your attention to just four of the recommendations her office made from 2013 to 2014.

  1. I recommend that government create a legislative duty within FIPPA to document key decisions as a clear indication that it does not endorse “oral government” and that it is committed to be accountable to citizens by creating an accurate record of its actions.
  2. Government should ensure that copies of all records created by its employees that relate to government business are located in government controlled information management systems.
  3. Government should ensure that employees with roles that are closely tied to the governing party participate in mandatory privacy training sessions regarding the need to keep personal information obtained in their government role separate from personal information obtained in any role they might have with the political party.
  4. The BC Liberal Party should ensure that employees and volunteers who also have roles within government participate in mandatory privacy training sessions regarding the need to keep personal information obtained in their BC Liberal Party role separate from personal information obtained in their government role.

And here we are – in 2015 – discussing the same issues again.

It would seem that the recommendations of the Dyble report, commissioner Denham’s office, the 2014 standards of conduct for political staff and the oath were given short shrift by some ministerial and caucus staff. Perhaps some have concluded that there is little or no consequence in breaking their oath to the people of British Columbia.

Your office has a duty to assure the public that this is not the case, that the standards of conduct for public employees and political staff are meaningful, apply to all employees, and that there are consequences for violating those standards.

Kim Haakstad resigned as the premier’s deputy chief of staff in March 2013 recognizing that she had breached those standards. It is inappropriate and disproportionate that Ms. Haakstad should pay a price for her conduct that is not demanded, expected or applied to other political staff.

I would ask that you review commissioner Denham’s Access Denied report in that light and in the context of the agency’s standards of conduct for public sector employees and political staff. If warranted, appropriate disciplinary actions should be taken by your office.

In reviewing these matters, I would also ask that you consider how the standards of conduct for political staff have been introduced by chiefs of staff to their political staff, applied and monitored.

I can find only one short reference to any of these matters in the annual reports for the Public Service Agency for 2013/14 and 2014/15.

From The Year Ahead (2014/15):

We are encouraged by how the Lean philosophy has been embraced by public service employees and the Agency will continue to play an integral role embedding Lean across our organization.

In addition, we will build capacity by applying Lean successes more broadly across the public service in areas where all ministries could benefit, such as Freedom of Information, contracts, and correspondence.

Despite these capacity-building exercises, the government still felt compelled to retain former privacy commissioner David Loukidelis at $50,000 – hardly lean – to write a review of the government’s handling of documents and freedom of information requests and to do so within less than 60 days.

I’ve made these two requests of you – for a public update on the recommendations from the Dyble report and an investigation into whether the public sector or political staff’s standards of conduct were broken in the matters – because there’s a belief among the public that too often these affairs get swept under the carpet.

Prove them wrong.

 

Sincerely,

 

Dermod Travis

Executive Director, IntegrityBC

 

cc: Elizabeth Denham, Information and Privacy Commissioner

 

Appendix A

 

STANDARDS OF CONDUCT FOR POLITICAL STAFF REGULATION (abridged)

The complete standards of conduct for political staff is available at: http://www.bclaws.ca/civix/document/id/complete/statreg/67_2014

Political staff will exhibit the highest standards of conduct. Their conduct must instil confidence and trust and not bring the Province of British Columbia into disrepute.

The requirement to comply with these standards of conduct is a condition of employment. Political staff who fail to comply with these standards may be subject to disciplinary action up to and including dismissal.

The Standards of Conduct for Political Staff closely resemble the Standards of Conduct applicable to employees of the BC Public Service.

However, the Standards of Conduct for Political Staff recognize the unique, partisan role performed by political staff and provide guidance on how political staff may exercise their partisan duties while also respecting the non-partisan role of employees in the BC Public Service.

Role of Political Staff

Political staff are generally employed to help Ministers on matters where the non-political and political work of Government overlap and where it would be inappropriate for permanent public servants to become involved.

Loyalty

Political staff have a duty of loyalty to the government as their employer. They must act honestly and in good faith and place the interests of the employer ahead of their own private interests. The duty committed to in the Political Staff Oath requires political staff to serve the government of the day to the best of their ability.

Service to the Public

Political staff must provide service to the public in a manner that is courteous, professional, equitable, efficient, and effective. Staff must be sensitive and responsive to the changing needs, expectations, and rights of a diverse public in the proper performance of their duties.

Workplace Behaviour

Political staff are to treat each other with respect and dignity and must not engage in discriminatory conduct prohibited by the Human Rights Code. The prohibited grounds are race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, religion, family status, marital status, physical disability, mental disability, sex, sexual orientation, age, political belief or conviction of a criminal or summary offence unrelated to the individual’s employment.

Further, the conduct of political staff in the workplace must meet acceptable social standards and must contribute to a positive work environment. Bullying or any other inappropriate conduct compromising the integrity of the Province of BC will not be tolerated.

Political staff may ask ministry employees for information, transmit the Minister’s instructions, or be informed of decisions in order to address communications and strategic issues. However, they do not have a direct role in ministry operations and have no legal basis for exercising the delegated authority of Ministers. Nor may political staff give direction to ministry employees on the discharge of their responsibilities.

Examples of inappropriate conduct include, but are not limited to, the following:

Ask a ministry employee to do anything inconsistent with their obligations under the Standards of Conduct;

Suppress or supplant advice prepared for the Minister by ministry employees (although they may comment on such advice).

Allegations of Wrongdoing

Political staff have a duty to report any situation relevant to their employment that they believe contravenes the law, misuses public funds or assets, or represents a danger to public health and safety or a significant danger to the environment.

Staff can expect such matters to be treated in confidence, unless disclosure of information is authorized or required by law (for example, the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act).

Staff will not be subject to discipline or reprisal for bringing forward to a Chief of Staff, in good faith, allegations of wrongdoing in accordance with this policy statement.

Political staff must report their allegations or concerns in writing to their Chief of Staff or the Chief of Staff to the Premier, who will acknowledge receipt of the submission and have the matter reviewed and responded to in writing within 30 days of receiving the staff member’s submission.

Where an allegation involves a Chief of Staff, the employee must forward the allegation to the Chief of Staff to the Premier. Where an allegation involves the Chief of Staff to the Premier, the allegation must be forwarded to the Deputy Minister to the Premier.

In addition to these reporting requirements, it is expected political staff will also report to the Comptroller General any irregularities related to the expenditure of public funds as outlined in Section 33.2 of the Financial Administration Act.

Where a political staff member believes that the matter requires a resolution and it has not been reasonably resolved by their employer, they may then refer the allegation to the appropriate authority.

If the staff member decides to pursue the matter further then:

Allegations of criminal activity are to be referred to the police;

Allegations of a misuse of public funds are to be referred to the Auditor General;

Allegations of a danger to public health must be brought to the attention of health authorities; and

Allegations of a significant danger to the environment must be brought to the attention of the Deputy Minister, Ministry of Environment.

 

Appendix B

 

 

B.C. Reg. 66/2014
210/2014

Deposited April 17, 2014

Public Service Act

POLITICAL STAFF OATH REGULATION

Note: Check the Cumulative Regulation Bulletin 2014 and 2015
for any non-consolidated amendments to this regulation that may be in effect.

Definition

 

1 In this regulation, “political staff member” means a person described in the Schedule to the Standards of Conduct for Political Staff Regulation.

 

Form of oath

2 The prescribed form of oath for a political staff member for the purposes of section 21 of the Public Service Act is as follows:

 

As an appointee under section 15 (1) (a) of the Public Service Act,

 

I, ………………………………… , [appointee name] do solemnly swear/affirm [circle one] that

 

I will

 

1 loyally serve the people of British Columbia through their democratically elected government,

 

2 honour and faithfully abide by the Standards of Conduct for Political Staff, and

 

3 to the best of my ability,

(a) act with integrity, putting the interests of the public and the public service above my own personal interest and avoiding all conflicts of interest, whether real or perceived,

(b) safeguard confidential information, not divulging it unless I am either authorized to do so or required to do so by law,

(c) conduct myself honestly and ethically, in a manner that maintains and enhances the public’s trust and confidence in the Province of British Columbia and does not bring it into disrepute.

Sworn/Affirmed [circle one] by me, at …………………………………………………, this …………….. day of ……………………………….., 20…… .

…………………………………………………………..
Person administering Oath or Affirmation

…………………………………………………………..
Person giving Oath or Affirmation

[Provisions relevant to the enactment of this regulation: Public Service Act, R.S.B.C. 1996, c. 385, section 25]