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Civil service lacks proper code of conduct

Survey found ethical misconduct, fraud

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Outgoing Manitoba auditor general Carol Bellringer found a lack of ethical safeguards in the civil service.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Outgoing Manitoba auditor general Carol Bellringer found a lack of ethical safeguards in the civil service. Photo Store

A report by Manitoba's auditor general pointing to a lack of ethical safeguards in the province's civil service is raising alarm bells.

An online survey of 5,000 public servants, conducted by the auditor general's office, found a third are aware of ethical misconduct or fraudulent activity within their workplace. Yet in only half the cases are managers informed.

Auditor general Carol Bellringer said while the province has stated broad ethical principles for civil servants, it lacks a proper code of conduct that sets out expectations for workers and managers.

She said while a third of workers believe conflicts of interest are an issue in the civil service, a sampling of personnel files her office examined found that in "many" instances, required declaration forms were not included.

Bellringer also found while a third of government employees would like to receive training on fraud awareness and identification, no such instruction is available.

Opposition Leader Brian Pallister said the level of ethical misconduct and fraudulent activity suggested by the report is "a cause for concern" and he called for the government to act.

"In workplaces, whether public or private, it's a team environment that works best. And if team members are afraid to raise concerns about the conduct of other team members, you're not going to build a healthy workplace," he said. The survey found close to half of civil servants identified a misuse of work time or misreporting of time worked as a concern.

"We want value for money. We want an inspired civil service. And we want people who love working there. And you can't love working at a place when your friends aren't as dedicated to their tasks as you are," Pallister said.

Bellringer said public service demands civil servants consistently maintain the highest possible standards of ethical behaviour.

In other sections of her report, released this week, she uncovered instances of questionable expense filings and other ethical lapses on the part of civil servants.

A clerk in the province's Northern Airports office in Thompson used a government purchasing card for personal expenses totalling $37,314. Neither she nor her manager are still in the province's employ. The province is considering civil action to recoup that money and other questionable expenses totalling more than $80,000.

Meanwhile, an audit of the Office of the Fire Commissioner found an employee was able to purchase two government trucks worth a total of $15,000 for only $700. The OFC also spent thousands of dollars on repairs and upgrades to the vehicles after the sale was concluded. The sales were approved by a former fire commissioner in 2009 who is now before the courts.

Finance Minister Jennifer Howard said while she is concerned with some of the issues raised in the report, she said it should be put into context.

"I do not want anyone to leave the impression that our civil servants are engaging in unethical behaviour in a widespread way," she said Thursday.

She said the survey's definition of what constituted unethical behaviour was broad, including "everything from people going home early to not being where they say they're supposed to be to more serious cases of fraud."

The auditor general noted there is currently no formal process in place for employees to anonymously report ethical misconduct or fraudulent activity. While a whistleblower-protection law is in place, many employees do not know who the designated officer is in their office.

Meanwhile, a local human-resources management expert said the findings that one-third of civil servants are aware of ethical misconduct or fraud in the workplace is no surprise. She said the problem is similar in scope outside of government.

"Research on ethical misconduct in the private sector is consistent over the last 10 years at about 30 per cent," said Barbara Bowes.

She advises more training on ethical issues and appointment of ethics officers who are independent of management.

Prof. Arthur Schafer, director of the University of Manitoba's Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics, said the province must ensure its employees are aware of how they can report illegal or seriously unethical conduct and those who behave conscientiously will not suffer retribution.

"The most important element needed is to create a culture of professional excellence," he said. "In a society that habitually downgrades and denigrates public servants as 'bureaucrats' -- focused on feathering their own nest -- it's difficult to create and sustain a workplace culture of public service. But there's lots more that can be done and the AG's report highlights some of the means by which the government can improve both the morals and the morale of public servants."

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 21, 2014 A4

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