Manitoba's Crown addictions agency makes changes following audit, employee complaints

Manitoba’s largest addictions services agency has undergone a culture shift following a 2015 audit that identified gaps in its financial accountability and an incident where employees accused the agency of creating an unsafe work environment.

Addictions Foundation of Manitoba CEO says major changes have been made after internal audit identified gaps

Addictions Foundation of Manitoba CEO Ben Fry says there has been a culture shift at AFM following a 2015 audit. (Warren Kay / CBC Manitoba)

Manitoba's largest addictions services agency says it has made significant changes following a 2015 audit, and a 2014 incident where employees accused the agency of creating an environment which jeopardized the safety of clients.

Ben Fry, the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba's CEO, says the Crown agency has revamped how it keeps records, appraises employees' performances and communicates with staff following an internal government audit — which also uncovered a 2014 letter that was deeply critical of the AFM, and said work conditions at the agency resulted in vacancies that put the people it serves at risk.

"There are other areas within the organization that are certainly going well," he said. "We are committed to improving these corporate services."

It took more than a year for CBC News to get a copy of the 74-page audit under a freedom of information request filed in October 2016. The objective was to review the financial management practices of the addictions foundation — a Crown agency charged with providing addictions services across Manitoba, including treatment for drug, alcohol and gambling addictions.

It employs over 400 staff through 28 locations across the province.

The AFM was prepared to release the audit nearly a year ago but a third party, who had been consulted by AFM, opposed releasing it and filed a complaint to the provincial ombudsman.

After the ombudsman's review, a copy with some redactions was provided to CBC.

'Room for improvement'

The audit, conducted between February and June 2015, found "AFM's financial management practices and Board governance warrant attention and improvement."

Among the issues it found were the lack of a policy for receiving gifts, a lack of corporate credit card use policy, questions raised concerning the CEO's car allowance, and poor record-keeping of expenses.

Issues were also raised about the board and a lack of documentation of minutes. 

The audit also found a contract worth over $100,000 that was not properly advertised, as per government standards.

As a result of the [staff turnover and vacancies at AFM] and not unpredictably, client services and client safety have been critically impacted.- Anonymous 2014 letter sent to health minister, union representatives and AFM staff

Fry — who took over as CEO in 2015, after the departure of former CEO Yvonne Block and after provincial auditors had wrapped up their work — wouldn't say he had to clean up the agency upon arrival, but said the 149 recommendations detailed in the audit showed there was "room for improvement."

"Ensuring that we have good documentation, [we] engage the staff in a two-way conversation and we are able to identify areas that are going well around performance, as well as those areas that might need a bit more focus or improvement," he said.

Letter says client safety 'critically impacted'

During the course of the audit, auditors were also alerted to a 2014 incident where several anonymous letters were sent to the health minister, union representatives and addictions foundation staff. The letters were also posted throughout the AFM's office in Winnipeg.

CBC News obtained a copy of the letter, which urged employees to speak out to government officials about the significant loss of managers, ongoing staff turnover due to stress leave, and a high vacancy rate.

I don't know if employees were dissatisfied. Our interactions with staff certainly pointed to areas we could improve.- Addictions Foundation of Manitoba CEO Ben Fry

"As a result of the above and not unpredictably, client services and client safety have been critically impacted," states the letter, dated Oct. 6, 2014.

The letter asked staff to write their own letters to officials, asking them figure out the "true nature" of staff turnover, how the agency is perceived in the community, the state of morale at AFM and what the impact is on client service and client safety.

The letter cites the arrival of Block as the foundation's CEO in 2011 as the point when staff and managers began leaving the agency.

'Areas we could improve'

The letter only came to Fry's attention when the agency received the completed audit in August 2016. He told CBC he has never seen the letter and it did not spur the audit. Instead, the audit was conducted as part of the provincial government's regular auditing schedule, he said.

"From what I know, I would say those letters were possibly related to people expressing concerns they had with the organization," he said.

The audit states it did not conduct an intensive investigation into the letter, but spoke with the board chair at the time, who said that AFM hired a contractor to determine the source of the complaint.

"They were not concerned with the validity of the complaints and deemed the complaints invalid," the audit stated.

Following the results of the audit, Fry said the agency put its energy into responding to the recommendations and communicating better with employees. That included conducting a staff-engagement survey.

Though I cannot agree with much of the narrative of the audit report because it is inaccurate and incomplete, I support the continued work at AFM towards ensuring that the recommendations are implemented.- Former AFM CEO Yvonne Block

"It put in front of us a strong mandate to address this," he said of the issues raised in the audit.

"I don't know if employees were dissatisfied. Our interactions with staff certainly pointed to areas we could improve."

When asked for further comment, the AFM said they take "issues of staff and client safety seriously."

"The CEO also makes it a priority to meet face to face with all AFM program teams and sites throughout Manitoba," said a spokesperson in a prepared statement.

"These approaches help us anticipate emerging issues and ensure there are multiple venues, in addition to regular communication with supervisors, where staff ideas can be raised and concerns can be identified and resolved."

Fry said of the audit's recommendations, about one-third have been implemented. That includes increasing the frequency of board meetings, improving the tender process, strengthening payroll processes, axing the CEO's car allowance, hiring an internal auditor and frequent performance reviews for leadership positions.

"We still have a ways to go," he said.

When asked if the gaps noted in the audit would have impacted services, Fry said, "I don't believe so."

He said that significant efforts to reach out to employees and hear concerns have been made since he became CEO.

"I am very pleased," he said. "We are trying to support a culture that is harmonious."

Former CEO responds

Yvonne Block, who was CEO from 2011 until December 2014, declined an interview, but offered a prepared statement.

She said upon reviewing the audit, she found various points where she says it is inaccurate. One of the factors that may have contributed to missing information was the need to implement a records management system, she said.

Fry also acknowledged that a possible reason some records couldn't be located was that there was an interim CEO in place during the course of the audit.

Block also said a policy review had begun during her time at AFM and "much more work was ahead at the time that I departed from AFM."

"After seeing the final report, I made repeated offers to provide information and point the way to documentation in order to revise the report to improve its accuracy," she wrote.

"Though I cannot agree with much of the narrative of the audit report because it is inaccurate and incomplete, I support the continued work at AFM towards ensuring that the recommendations are implemented."

About the Author

Kristin Annable

Reporter

Kristin Annable is a member of CBC's investigative unit based in Winnipeg. She can be reached at kristin.annable@cbc.ca

With files from Vera-Lynn Kubinec