Do the right thing, how to blow the whistle on wrongdoing in the government: it’s not easy (part 1)

This piece first appeared in the Hill Times on March 20, 2017.

Whistleblowers are not well understood. They are under tremendous pressure and are faced with resolving their own personal belief in doing the right thing with survival. This affects them at work and at home.

The whistleblower may be faced with a number of situations: from blowing the whistle perhaps on the use of chemicals that have polluted the water table of neighbours, to blowing the whistle on financial fraud, to blowing the whistle on major and critical problems, such as in the Phoenix pay system.

The following is written from the perspective of a person who could be facing this type of dilemma and who is trying to decide what to do.

What should I do? I tried to bring up the problem to my manager. He listened, promised that action would take place but nothing happened. I know that he is concerned about taking a stand as that could end his career.

I am alone, isolated with no one to talk to or willing to support me. Since I spoke up, I am watched, my work closely scrutinized. Every word that I say can be used against me. It is only a matter of time before something happens. It is difficult to be careful every minute of every day when you know they are waiting for you to make a mistake.

There is the ethics adviser who is supposed to help me but I heard her say that her job was to protect the department. She reports to the deputy minister and is more concerned about her career than helping people.

Where can I go? I need to talk to someone who understands. Let me think. I heard that we now have an integrity commissioner. Maybe that’s where I should go. This commissioner must have a website to give advice.

Found it. It is the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner’s Office (PSIC). Now I will have someone to talk and who will understand. Let’s click on “Disclosure of Wrongdoing.” There are three headings under this: Five Questions to Ask Yourself Before Disclosing; Protection From Reprisal, and How to Disclose Wrongdoing.

I know there is wrongdoing, but I should check out the five questions. What are they anyway? Oh no, the first question requires the wrongdoing to be illegal under a government act. How can I be certain? I am no lawyer. I will tell PSIC the problem and someone in their personnel will advise me. They are the experts in this, not me. What does this mean? “At times, something may appear to be wrong but may not be considered wrongdoing under the act.” So wrongdoing may not be wrong. What a curious thought for an integrity commissioner to post.

The second question is easier: where can I disclose the wrongdoing? There are three possibilities: to a manager, to a senior officer for internal disclosure, or to PSIC. I have already ruled out the first two. Now I know I am in the right place, disclosing it to the Integrity Commissioner’s Office.

The third question is what the Integrity Office does with a disclosure. No problem with this. They can analyze my information and give me some advice. I am not certain what is meant by “procedural fairness” and “natural justice” when it states, “The right to procedural fairness and natural justice of all persons involved in investigations is respected throughout the process.” Still, it is good to know that I will be respected. I am beginning to feel better about going to an independent body. I will have an ally in addressing the situation.

What is this? Question four states it may take one year to complete a full investigation. What happens to me in the meantime? I can’t survive a year in this job, especially once it is known that I have taken action. They already know I have asked questions. Will I be protected? Am I going to be transferred? Thinking about it, why should I be the one transferred? After all, I am only doing my job the way that I am supposed to. I am going to have to carefully think about reporting through the Integrity Commissioner’s Office when I am exposed.

Question five is of equal concern. All the commissioner does is report whether the wrongdoing is founded. Nothing else happens. That leaves me out on a limb with no protection and a serious situation that has not been corrected.

The next header is “Protection from Reprisal.” I wonder if it answers any of the questions that the first header did not answer. Not much help here. PSIC states that it is obligated and fully committed to protecting my identity, with the caveat, “to the extent possible.” Do they really think I won’t be spotted once I make a disclosure? We are a small group and only a few of us have the information or access to the files. In any event, I am already known as raising concerns. What a meaningless title for the section. There is nothing about protecting me from reprisal, only about confidentiality.

I am discouraged. Why go on? PSIC will not help or protect me from reprisal. I will be left to the mercy of management while an investigation goes on (for up to a year). I have heard others were fired for reporting wrongdoing and PSIC wouldn’t help them. Why would my situation be any different? Maybe I should just not bother reporting wrongdoing. No one will ever know. By the time it surfaces, my management will all have received promotions or transferred. Once gone, they are safe. It is only the few of us left behind who will suffer. Maybe I can find a transfer. I should look for a job in an organization where I can work with pride.

I don’t know if I could live with myself if I don’t at least try to fix someone who understands the dilemma and that person has to be in the Integrity Commissioner’s Office. I am very discouraged but determined to continue. I need to talk to someone about this; someone who can listen; someone who understands; someone who can guide me. If I don’t do something, who will?

My decision is made. I am going to file a complaint of wrongdoing. Time to read, “How to disclose wrongdoing.” What’s this? I have to complete a disclosure form. Why? I just want to talk to someone. Second step is to gather information. For that I need to talk to someone. What type of information is helpful? Documents, copies of emails, memos to and from management? Do I need a written record of all my meetings and discussions on this? PSIC states that I will have an opportunity to discuss the file with an analyst if need be. What file? I haven’t submitted one yet. In any case, I need to discuss the situation even if the analyst doesn’t. Why are the needs of an analyst more important than mine?

Reading on, I now understand that I am not allowed to talk to anyone at PSIC. It is clear. I must submit all the details in person to the PSIC office, by mail or by fax. Who uses a fax anymore? PSIC states that e-mail is not a secure means of transmission. Why? I have a Gmail account, a Hotmail account, and others that are not government linked. I think they are secure. I would never send PSIC information over a government line that could be monitored. It must be that the Integrity Commissioner’s Office does not have security. Finally, I am asked to respect the confidentiality of the process while they determine the next steps. Nothing is there about respecting me and my needs. I am the one who is at risk, not them. Why are they only concerned about themselves?

This is frustrating. I doubt very few people in my situation would even get this far. Why bother when the Integrity Commissioner’s Office is not interested in helping or protecting people. They state that they want people to come forward and then make it almost impossible to proceed. This is like a four-way intersection with no stop signs and the person going through is proceeding at great risk.

I must be stupid, stubborn, or desperate to even continue. I am not certain which but I will persevere. Next step is to fill out the disclosure form.

Footnote: Due to length, this narrative will be continued next week as the employee attempts to report the wrongdoing. It is important to realize that at this point in time, most do not think of themselves as “whistleblowers.” Rather they have personal values and a belief (trust) that doing the right thing will have positive results. Canadians for Accountability (www.canadians4accountability. org) is now the only organization in Canada dedicated to helping whistleblowers. This narrative was written based on discussions with many whistleblowers. Real lives are impacted, usually negatively, when trying to report wrongdoing.