Is Independence Real or Perceived?

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The AG compels responses from the government prior to his reports being tabled in Parliament. Yet the responses from the government seem to be more benign and dismissive than ever before. In speaking with my fellow ombudsmen counterparts at the federal level, this seems to be a recurring theme.

Gary Walbourne, The Hill Times, June 18, 2018

There are very few public officers held in higher regard than the auditor general. The ongoing Phoenix debacle all but stole the show in the media cycle, and probably for good reason-as National Defence and Canadian Armed Forces ombudsman, I have seen it slowly and methodically erode the well-being of Defence civilians from coast-to-coast over the past three years.

Perhaps an equally troubling narrative, from an institutional perspective, can be found in his comments related to how the recommendations contained in his reports are handled by the government as a whole: that departments readily agree with audit and review findings, but are slow to implement those recommendations. "I've gotten to the point where, 'That's nice. That's a first step'...we hear that from every department," Auditor General Michael Ferguson said. "What's important is that we start to see results that show there are changes."

As National Defence and Canadian Armed Forces ombudsman, I have witnessed first-hand the frustration of having to delineate the term "accepted" versus "implemented" when my office conducts its routine follow-ups to assess whether anything, in fact, is being done about our evidence-based recommendations. Last year, my office started publishing progress reports, or "report cards" to better illustrate the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces' progress related to our findings.

What's perhaps more troubling is that the auditor general is an officer of Parliament that is entrenched in legislation and possesses more independence and teeth than most organizational ombudsmen. He compels responses from the government prior to his reports being tabled in Parliament. Yet the responses from the government seem to be more benign and dismissive than ever before. In speaking with my fellow ombudsmen counterparts at the federal level, this seems to be a recurring theme. Many responses that I have received have been, as I have put them, "nebulous" at best.

Parliamentarians and Canadians should be concerned about this growing trend. It is a clever tactic that allows government departments to project the appearance of doing the right thing, without doing anything at all.

The auditor general also made important observations related to independent offices who "do not control their resources independently." He made these observations in the context of his review of the administration of the Canadian military justice system, a system that he called "too slow to charge and try cases." In this context, he raised concerns about the Judge Advocate General having potential influence on the process of assigning military lawyers to cases on both the prosecution and defence side, duties usually specifically assigned to the director of Military Prosecutions and the director of Defence Counsel Services, and appointed by the minister of National Defence.

What many Canadians might not know is that very few federally-appointed positions who are independent of the organizations they oversee actually have control of their resources and governance structures. In my position, for instance, I have found that whenever I have been critical of the department, the administrative wheels turn a little slower.

Aside from a few ombudsman positions and the auditor general, the rest, including my position as National Defence and Canadian Forces ombudsman, are not federally legislated. This means that, despite the validity of our evidence-based our recommendations that seek to provide lasting positive impacts for our respective constituencies, the government can shrug the responsibility of their implementation. The Canadian public should be concerned that the auditor general believes that his recommendations are being set aside and not being adequately addressed. If someone isn't watching out for those who provide indispensable independent oversight on its institutions, we may find ourselves in a position where they no longer exist.

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