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Ombudsman Asks Government to Update the Way it Deals with Conflicts of Interest in the Public Sector

2012-10-09

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For release on October 9, 2012 at 10:00 a.m.

OMBUDSMAN ASKS GOVERNMENT TO UPDATE THE WAY IT DEALS WITH CONFLICTS OF INTEREST IN  THE PUBLIC SECTOR

Today, Saskatchewan’s Ombudsman, Kevin Fenwick, released a report titled Achieving the Right Balance: A Review of Saskatchewan’s Conflict of Interest Policy Respecting the Provincial Public Service Sector. He says that, while the policy may have worked in the past, it has not kept up with best practices and the current situations in which public servants are likely to find themselves. The policy was issued in 1986, revised in 1994 and had not been reviewed since. “It is time for a new approach,” Fenwick says.

“The possibility for conflict of interest situations happens every day in the public service and is to be expected.” Fenwick stated he believes that the vast majority of provincial public servants act in an ethical and responsible manner but added “The world of government has changed and the modern public service is complex.” He cited the increased number of partnerships between levels of government and between government and the private sector. “There is a wide range of possible conflict of interest situations and government needs to be prepared with an appropriate range of responses. One size no longer fits all.”  

Fenwick found that the current conflict of interest policy is outdated and does not provide government with the tools it needs to effectively respond to the interests of not only the government, but public servants and most importantly the general public. An effective conflict of interest policy achieves a balance between all these interests.

The limits of the existing policy and the way it was applied caused concern earlier this year for a public servant who was not allowed to run for municipal office. That concern was brought to the Ombudsman. At that time, the Minister Responsible for the Public Service Commission (PSC) requested that the Ombudsman review the policy known as PS 801 Conflict of Interest.

Fenwick says the scope of the review is far-reaching. “This is a policy that affects everyone in the public service, from the person answering phones through to a deputy minister. In addition to replacing the policy, government needs to ensure that public servants have the training, guidance and support to correctly understand and apply the policy.”

Key findings include:

  • PS 801 does not contemplate or deal with the range of conflict of interest situations that may occur in a modern day public service.
  • The policy only applies to those conflicts that are discovered during a person’s tenure with government and does not cover situations where an individual moves from public to private sectors or post-employment conflicts of interest.
  • The policy does not clearly outline what interests (personal and financial) are required to be declared, when they should be declared and does not provide a clear process for disclosure.  
  • There are no timelines with respect to decisions made under the policy and as a result decisions as to whether a situation constitutes a conflict of interest may not be made in a timely manner.
  • There is no recognition of provincial privacy legislation in PS 801.
  • The current appeal process is limited and applies to only those decisions related to disciplinary actions taken when the policy is contravened.
  • The decision-making responsibility of the Public Service Commission Chairperson or his delegates under PS 801 appears to have been largely divested to PSC human resource consultants* in line ministries with no accompanying authority.  *(Also referred to in the report as human resource consultants.)
  • PSC human resource consultants* in the line ministries have a dual role as decision-maker under the policy and consultant to the ministry and the individual public servant.  This dual role in and of itself may place a consultant in a conflict of interest situation. *(Also referred to in the report as human resource consultants.)
  • There are no provisions which allow the policy to be reviewed annually or publicly reported on.
  • It is unclear what training is provided to public servants about the policy or what provisions are made to ensure every public servant is aware of their responsibilities under PS 801.  


Fenwick recognizes that it will take some time to develop a new policy. For this reason, five of the recommendations are for immediate implementation and a sixth has implications in the short and long term. The rest are long-term recommendations that include a replacement of the current policy and he has asked that these be implemented within a year.

The Public Service Commission has indicated that it has accepted and will implement all 15 recommendations. Fenwick says, “We appreciate the PSC’s openness during the review and their positive response to our findings and recommendations.”  

Achieving the Right Balance is available online at http://www.ombudsman.sk.ca/documents_and_files/systemic-reviews. The Ombudsman is an officer of the Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan who promotes and protects fairness in the design and delivery of government services. The Ombudsman has the authority to take complaints from citizens who believe that a government ministry, branch, board, commission or other agency of the government, or a publicly-funded health agency has not dealt fairly with them. The office provides a range of services, including investigation, negotiation, mediation and facilitated communications. The Ombudsman operates under The Ombudsman Act, 2012.

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Media contact:
Leila Dueck
Director of Communications
Ombudsman Saskatchewan
Phone: 306-787-7369
E-mail: ldueck@ombudsman.sk.ca
 

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