ACOA report finds improper conduct in hiring political aide

An investigation by the Public Service Commission into the hiring of five people at the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency found no political interference, but did revoke two positions for improper conduct and found errors in a third case.

Public Service Commission revokes job

An investigation by the Public Service Commission into the hiring of five individuals at the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency found no political interference, but it did revoke two of the positions for improper conduct and found errors in a third case.

A summary of the investigation was made public on the PSC's website on Friday afternoon, but for privacy reasons does not name any of the individuals involved.

The PSC investigation was initiated following a February 2011 letter from the Liberal Party's Atlantic caucus, expressing concerns over the political affiliations of five individuals recently hired at ACOA and the Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation (ECBC.)

The PSC found that the hiring at ECBC was not under its jurisdiction. But it did proceed with investigations into six separate hiring processes concerning the five individuals at ACOA.

None of the processes were found to have violated section 68 of the Public Service Employment Act, which specifies that appointments must be free from political interference.

But three of the cases were found in breach of section 66 of the Act, which concerns cases where there is "an error, an omission or improper conduct that affected the selection of the person appointed."

One case still in court

In one case, errors were made in hiring an individual. But that individual is no longer employed at the agency, so no corrective action was taken.

In the other two cases, improper conduct was found in the hiring process, and the positions were revoked.

Details on one of the anonymous cases were not shared because the PSC decision is under judicial review.

CBC News reported on Oct. 10 that Kevin MacAdam, a former senior political aide to Peter MacKay when he was the minister responsible for ACOA, had applied for judicial review after his appointment as ACOA's director general of operations for Prince Edward Island was revoked in an Aug.8 PSC decision. That review is expected to take months.

But details about the hiring practices involved for the second job that was revoked were provided in the PSC's summary of the investigation.

Job tailored for one political staffer

The investigation found that two senior officials as well as an HR manager explored positions in three different occupational groups to see whether the individual who was eventually hired was eligible to compete for the position. They also explored how many other individuals would have had priority status to compete for the positions.

Individuals with priority status are entitled under public service rules to be appointed ahead of all others to vacant positions provided they meet the job qualifications. Following changes made in 2006, political staff working in ministers' offices can no longer obtain priority status for positions in the federal civil service. If they want jobs inside departments or agencies, they must apply for externally-advertised positions.

The HR official involved in this hiring told the PSC investigation that this position was advertised externally in order to give an individual working in the minister's office an opportunity to apply. Another ACOA official involved in the process testified that they were told to launch an externally advertised process in order to hire this particular individual.

The hiring manager requested that the advertisement be posted for only the minimum time period: 48 hours. Similar positions are normally posted for much longer, giving more individuals the opportunity to apply.

Bilingualism requirement not considered

The language requirements were also customized in favour of the person intended to have the job. The PSC report says that the hiring manager requested that the position be created with a language requirement of "English only," even though the position was located in a bilingual region, with responsibilities normally associated with a bilingual language requirement.

The investigation summary adds that "this was the only non-bilingual position at that group and level in a bilingual region at ACOA" and "there was no evidence that a bilingual designation was ever considered."

A witness told the PSC that based on a conversation with the hiring manager, he or she believed "the decision was based on the fact that the individual appointed was not bilingual."

The hiring manager also applied an education qualification listed in the job description so narrowly that only two individuals were considered for the job, including the person hired.

Finally, the hiring manager gave an advantage to the person intended to receive the job by tailoring a question in the job interview to a particular situation that he or she was known to have been involved in handling.

"The Commission recognizes that there was no improper conduct on the part of the individual appointed," the summary says. "However, improper conduct was found within the appointment process, bringing into question the integrity of the appointment process."

No 'systemic problem'

The PSC singles out the hiring manager, a "senior official" at ACOA, as well as the HR official involved in the hiring process, for improper conduct.

The PSC rarely receives allegations of political interference: it has conducted only one other investigation of this nature since 2005. It noted that it doesn't see a systemic problem in the federal public service regarding the non-partisanship of the public service.

However, the PSC said it was "concerned by the absence of an effective internal challenge function and monitoring system that would have identified and addressed errors and improper conduct in a timely way."

"The appointment of former political staff to the federal public service is not problematic in and of itself," the summary says. "It is the commission’s position that any tailoring of an appointment process to match the qualifications or circumstances of a particular individual is improper."

"Deputy heads are expected to monitor patterns of staffing within their organization to ensure that the fundamental principles of merit and non-partisanship are being respected," it concludes.

The PSC says it is working closely with ACOA to address issues related to their staffing practices.

Based on the investigation, various managers had their staffing authority suspended "for a period of time" and training requirements were imposed for various individuals.