Manitobans have been well-served by the auditor general's March report on Manitoba's Framework for an Ethical Environment. It provides insight into the thinking of almost 5,000 civil servants, 33 per cent of the total across 18 core government departments, who took the time to respond to a well-designed ethics survey.
The report builds on the existing ethics provisions, interviews with all deputy ministers plus other auditor's reports that found financial irregularities involving hundreds of thousands of dollars stemming from various lapses in ethics and oversight.
This is timely, because in earlier auditor general reports of the expense accounts in the Office of the Fire Commissioner and the procurement-card purchasing by staff in the Northern Airports office of Manitoba Infrastructure and Transportation, the auditor recommended the evidence be forwarded to civil legal services, and the government concurred. While agreeing to several recommendations, the government initially disagreed on the need to assess and, if necessary, revise the Public Interest Disclosure Act, the whistleblower legislation.
Following an investigation into the Provincial Nominee Program for Business, however, the Department of Entrepreneurship, Training and Trade agreed to pay closer attention to employees' conflict-of-interest declarations.
The ethics survey found 94 per cent of government respondents perceive ethics and integrity as critical in the public sector and important in fulfilling their work.
The results of the 10-minute questionnaire are an eye-opener. One-third of respondents said they felt a co-worker was in a conflict of interest in conducting his or her work and one-third reported they are personally aware of fraudulent activity or ethical misconduct in their workplace within the last year. However, only half of them reported it to management because they didn't believe the offenders would be dealt with or because they feared reprisals. About 800 government employees added comments or suggestions about workplace ethics.
The auditor directed 14 recommendations to the Civil Service Commission (CSC) and five to the Finance Department designed to ensure a more pro-active approach to ethics and values throughout the civil service.
Late last year, the government decided it was wise to follow up on the auditor general's recommendation to review the rarely used PIDA. The then-auditor general, Carol Bellringer, was pleased to hear that the whistleblower protection act was being assessed to see if it was operating as it was intended. She said, "It's a good safety net in an organization to make sure that people feel comfortable coming forward if they happen to know about stuff, and that's almost always how we find out about anything that's going off the rails."
The ethics report was discussed during executive council estimates interspersed with tiresome sparring. The premier undertook to provide the house with the terms of reference of the PIDA review, but a month later that information has not been forthcoming. The review due in February has not yet surfaced. The case of Jack Dalgleish, the now-retired senior civil servant who was punished by his superiors in the Finance Department for his internal criticism of the Crocus file, was not part of any auditor's report. Did the Civil Service Commission know or care about his situation? Are there other civil servants on full salary being given no work and languishing in limbo?
The acting auditor general, Norm Ricard, says his office will comb through the civil servants' comments and see if they might inform future audits. The all-party public accounts committee will eventually discuss each of the auditor's 2014 reports. The auditor will follow up and report in 2016 on the progress of each recommendation.
It is up to the Manitoba government to act upon auditors' recommendations in a forthright and timely manner and for the opposition and the public to hold the government to account. This must happen -- in the public interest and out of respect for those government employees who are doing their best to work to a high ethical standard.
Elizabeth Fleming is a freelance writer living in Winnipeg.