On June 1, 2023, we mark an important milestone in whistleblower protection as the office of the Public Interest Commissioner turns 10 years old!

Since the office opened its doors, the Commissioner has been entrusted to provide an avenue for public sector employees to safely and confidentially report serious wrongdoings that may cause harm to the public interest. The objective of the office was to achieve full operational status on June 1, 2013, coinciding with the enactment of Alberta’s Public Interest Disclosure (Whistleblower Protection) Act.

Building trust from day one

Whistleblowers often have the best vantage point for understanding what is truly going on and the spirit of the Act is to encourage public sector employees to report issues in their workplaces. In the early days, our office focused on learning about public entities and speaking with public sector employees and executives within the organization when a complaint of wrongdoing came to light. A team of investigators with experience in government, policing, and private sector fraud investigations took every allegation seriously. Our goal – to ensure the government addressed issues in a meaningful way, while making sure employees were protected throughout the process.

At the time the office opened, many public institutions had not yet put whistleblower policies and procedures into place. There was a lack of awareness and understanding regarding the Act.  Chief and designated officers were uncertain about the role of our office, and questions about what complaints of wrongdoing required under the Act were commonplace. It took time to establish a framework that mapped out the specific protocols and procedures required for work of this kind with the Alberta public service.

Overcoming challenges

With most new programs and legislation, a significant challenge was in implementing the necessary requirements and in developing practical solutions to specific issues. Legislation can be complex and, on occasion, difficult to translate and implement at an organizational level.  To determine which concerns may be considered complaints under the Act called for interpretation of the language and, at times, in-depth analysis to determine if the complaint was jurisdictional.

Public entities responsible for educating employees and raising awareness about the Act did so in a world of competing priorities. We formulated our own strategic plans in this regard, recognizing the need to promote a positive perspective on whistleblowing.  Ideally, employees who see something wrong on the job and raise it with their managers should be encouraged and celebrated.

Another challenge we faced included how to appropriately handle complaints made anonymously. The Act gives the Commissioner the ability to receive anonymous complaints. However, when receiving a disclosure, the Commissioner requires adequate particulars about the alleged wrongdoing. With no means of contacting an anonymous person, it was difficult to appropriately act on the matter.

In our outreach work, we highlighted the Act as an opportunity to better develop internal whistleblower policies and procedures, to address and resolve wrongdoing, and to see these complaints as an opportunity to ensure the integrity of operational standards. It took time for public entities to communicate the concept internally and realize the benefits of inviting this type of feedback.

Shaping the next 10 years

Whistleblower complaints today continue to shine a light where an independent, unbiased assessment of potential harm to the public interest is needed. We learn from every case, and this dynamic perspective and an openness to change contributes positively to charting the path forward. In recent years, we have observed an upswing in serious allegations and a rise in the complexity of complaints our office receives. It is difficult to pin down exactly why; however, we recognize ten years of dedicated effort by the Public Interest Commissioner’s office and public entities to build trust with public sector employees is encouraging whistleblowers to come forward.

Kevin Brezinski is Alberta’s third Public Interest Commissioner and sees enhancing awareness of the Act as an investment in the future. His message to public sector employees is to reach out if they have serious concerns.

“If you believe serious wrongdoing is occurring in the workplace, just call us. Your complaints are valid, and my office is here to lend support and advice, or if circumstances call for an investigation and we provide a recommendation, the purpose is to rectify the issue and ensure it is addressed in a meaningful way.

This milestone in our office’s history allows us the opportunity to reflect on the successes of the past ten years, as well as where we need to innovate and grow. We work in service to the public and ultimately, it’s about supporting those who come to us for help, removing barriers and protecting the public interest. “

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