Government appointments, including to IRB, criticized

Posted by admin on Mar 31st, 2009

Updated Tue. Mar. 31 2009 5:13 PM ET. The Canadian Press

OTTAWA — Bungled communication and long delays hamper government appointments to multibillion-dollar commissions, boards and tribunals, says the auditor general.  “Poor communication shows a lack of respect for the individuals involved,” Sheila Fraser said Tuesday in a report to Parliament.  “These are important positions, and the problems we identified could discourage people from accepting them.”


Twenty-one of 45 senior Crown corporation officials who were interviewed cited major information lapses.

“Fifteen described the process as a ‘black box’ or a ‘black hole’,” Fraser said. “Two of those informed us that they learned of their appointments through the media.

“For reappointments of directors, 16 of 41 Crown corporations indicated that incumbent directors were notified of their reappointments only after their terms had expired.

“Chairs and CEOs of three Crown corporations told us of instances where directors learned at a board meeting that they had been replaced days earlier.”

Fraser focused on how the Privy Council Office — the government’s administrative nerve centre — runs the mechanics of the appointment process. The report examined 43 federal Crown corporations, employing 90,000 people and managing more than $185 billion in assets.

These and about 52 smaller entities include some 400 full-time and 1,000 part-time appointees. Their duties on boards, commissions and tribunals range from making quasi-judicial rulings to overseeing complex corporations.

“The timely appointment of qualified CEOs, chairs and directors is, therefore, a critical component in … the direction, oversight and management of a corporation,” Fraser said.

Yet she found ample evidence of delay and disarray.

“Although the situation has improved since our 2005 audit, the fact that 22 per cent of board positions in Crown corporations are either vacant or are occupied by incumbents with expired terms indicates an ongoing problem.”

And it seems hiring is still very much left to inner-circle government decision makers.

Just 11 of 41 Crown corporations told auditors that “their input was taken into account during the appointment process,” Fraser said.

The impact of delays is keenly felt at the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB), for example.

Positions there were filled in line with approved levels until appointments dropped off after the Conservatives took power in 2006.

Just 106 of 164 positions were filled as of March 31, 2008. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says recent appointments have narrowed the hiring gap so that more than 90 per cent of total jobs are now taken.

“We adopted a new system of pre-selection which frankly slowed things down because now people have to go through a rigorous series of interviews and tests,” he said when asked about the lag time. “So that explains why things were slow for a certain period of time.”

Still, long-standing vacancies meant the number of unprocessed immigration and refugee claims more than doubled between June 30, 2006, and March 31, 2008. The backlog had surpassed 50,000 claims by last fall.

Fraser said she is especially concerned about the “high financial, social and human costs” of such delays.

She also stressed the importance of staggered appointments to ensure management continuity.

“We found that in several corporations, more than half of directors’ terms expired or will expire in the same year.”

Auditors have cited serious concerns about the appointments process in previous reports.

A 2006 review found that the former correctional investigator who acts as ombudsman for federal inmates “never received any advice about his responsibilities or the expectations of the Privy Council Office … and was reappointed several times without a formal review of his performance.”

Fraser’s focus once again on the matter apparently rankled the government’s upper echelon.

“Officials of the Privy Council Office have expressed their view that aspects of our audit report go beyond the auditor general’s mandate and encroach on the exercise of discretion by ministers and (the cabinet),” Fraser said.

“We are satisfied that the findings in our report fall entirely within the mandate of the auditor general.”

The Federal Accountability Act in 2006 established the Public Appointments Commission. Its job was to “oversee, monitor, review and report on the selection process for appointments” to ensure transparency and merit-based choices.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper scrapped the commission, however, after opposition MPs rejected his first choice of chairman.

They grilled Gwyn Morgan, the Calgary oilman who had been tapped to act as patronage watchdog, over eyebrow-raising remarks he’d made about immigrants and unions.

On the bright side, Fraser notes that transparency has increased with a Privy Council website that posts all government appointed chair and CEO positions. They can also be viewed on related corporation websites.


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