This open letter by Public Interest Commissioner, Marianne Ryan first appeared in the Edmonton Journal and Calgary Herald on December 18, 2020. Marianne Ryan accepted a five-year appointment as Alberta’s second Public Interest Commissioner and ninth Ombudsman in the summer of 2017.
Whistleblowing legislation can only work when public servants have confidence they may safely disclose wrongdoing they encounter in the course of their employment. A scheduled review by a legislative committee of the Alberta Public Interest Disclosure (Whistleblower Protection) Act has led to recent scrutiny in the media. I believe the critic’s opinion is based upon misrepresentations and inaccuracies. The stated motivation of the critics is for stronger whistleblower protection. However, misleading information may have the opposite effect by discouraging potential whistleblowers from using a proven tool that effectively protects them and leads to a more cost-effective, efficient and safe public service. As the Commissioner responsible for administering the Act, I welcome public debate, but I am obligated to address the worst of the misrepresentations.
The most egregious misrepresentation is that actual wrongdoing must be found in order for public sector employees to be eligible for protection under the Act. This would be contrary to the spirit of the Act and is not how the Act is applied by my office. The fact is employees, acting in good faith, remain protected regardless of the outcome of a complaint or formal investigation. Employees are protected from the moment they discuss the possibility of making a disclosure through the channels identified in the Act, whether this takes place with Commission staff or a supervisor in their workplace.
The fact the Act protects employees even when no wrongdoing is found, renders the Act more effective because the legislation has improved government even in the absence of wrongdoing. The Act is designed to address serious and significant wrongdoing which is defined as being something that is unlawful, dangerous to the public or injurious to the public interest. While this is a high threshold, during the course of many investigations, my office has the ability to and often does work with the affected entity to address issues which do not meet the threshold of wrongdoing but still warrant correction. More importantly, the employee who brought the concerns forward remains protected for reporting their concern under the Act.
Recently, the question of whistleblower protection has appeared in the media. I respect the good the media can accomplish through the power of publication, but the existing legislation is not designed to protect those who wish to allege wrongdoing through the media. The legislators created a safe avenue for whistleblowers to identify wrongdoing and make government better through the process overseen by my office. Rightfully, my office was assigned no control over material released in the media.
The Act gives the Commissioner significant power beyond protecting the whistleblower’s identity. I may compel information from any person or organization in order to substantiate a disclosure. When wrongdoing is found, the Act empowers me to resolve the issue through various formal and informal processes, including the ability to make my findings public.
My office’s ability to oversee government is hampered by a general lack of awareness of the protections afforded by Alberta’s whistleblower legislation. However, even more damaging is misinformation suggesting that whistleblowers will not be protected. Since its inception in 2013, my office has not disclosed the identity of a single whistleblower. Let me state plainly to any public servant considering taking advantage of the shield offered by the Act, when making a disclosure, your voice is protected.
Reporting wrongdoing in the workplace can be a difficult choice for any public sector employee. However, knowing of a safe avenue through which to disclose wrongdoing is vital to enabling whistleblowers to come forward with their concerns. I believe Alberta’s Whistleblower Protection Act is the best mechanism to provide this safe avenue.
Inaccurate information with respect to the Act undermines the confidence Albertans should have with this important legislation and only serves to weaken the resolve of brave individuals who are seeking to do the right thing.
For more information about the Commissioner’s role and whistleblower protection in Alberta, visit www.yourvoiceprotected.ca/about-us.