Independence key to consumer complaints agency

Running the CCTS board is not unlike heading the Human Rights Commission, Mary Gusella says

The CCTS is not unlike the Human Rights Commission, Mary Gusella says

On the surface of it, one might not think an agency that handles gripes over cellphone bills has all that much in common with one that deals with discrimination in the workplace. In fact, the two are very much alike — or at least they are according to their one common denominator: Mary Gusella.

Appointed as chair of the board of the newly formed Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications in June, the former head of the Human Rights Commission says both agencies must maintain a firm independence if they are to be effective.

Gusella comes to the CCTS — formed last July to handle consumer complaints with telecommunications service providers — with a public service resumé a mile long. Aside from running the Human Rights Commission from 2002 to 2006, she has also been senior adviser to the Privy Council Office, the Canadian chair of the International Joint Commission and the deputy minister of Multiculturalism and Citizenship Canada, among other roles.

Gusella, who holds a law degree from the University of Ottawa, was in 2005 given the Outstanding Achievement Award of the Public Service by then prime minister Paul Martin.

She recently discussed her priorities with the CCTS, and how she plans to use her experience in setting the agency's agenda, with How did you get approached for this job and why did you accept it?

Gusella: I was approached by an executive search company and I decided to accept it because it was a very interesting model of complaints resolution within a private-sector context with a regulatory overlay. I think you're aware that I was in public service for over 36 years and I am very interested in a public administration solution to a variety of different challenges. This one felt to me like one I could bring something to and one I could learn something from. How do you think your previous experience at the Human Rights Commission will play into what you will do with the CCTS?

Gusella: Clearly there are many similarities between the two organizations and there are some obvious differences. The differences being that one is a government-aided agency while the other is within the private sector, one is statutorily based and the other is based on an order-in-council. Finally, one is funded by the Canadian taxpayer and the other is funded by the industry. Fundamentally, the independence that they each have is very similar. The impartiality with which they must both work, I would say is almost identical. I think I can bring that kind of understanding of how one needs to structure an organization in order to ensure its independence and protect its impartiality in its decision-making. Canada has for the past few years been deregulating its telecommunications market, and the CCTS is obviously a result of that. Have we moved fast enough to ensure there is enough consumer protection, and have we done enough?

Gusella: That's a question I probably cannot answer. One of the reasons I was asked to do this is because I don't have a background with the telecommunications sector, so my goal in becoming involved is to bring a fresh eye to the organization. The past for me is not really something I can comment on with any knowledge. There are a lot of people that could talk about it, but I'm probably not one of them. It's interesting that you say you have no background in telecommunications because in a sense everyone has one - as a consumer. Have you ever had a personal experience where you've been mistreated or ripped off by a service provider?

Gusella: I can't say that I ever recall having a bad experience, but I understand perfectly that many have and many people want to see these issues resolved quickly and efficiently. That's my starting point — when people have a complaint, to the extent that it's within our mandate, we're going to be doing our best to get it resolved quickly and efficiently. There is always the concern that self-regulatory agencies are not effective because they are run by the industry. How do you assuage those concerns?

Gusella: I understand that perspective and it's one of the preoccupations the CRTC had, and that is why the governance structure is so very important in this organization. The board itself is made up of seven people, only three of whom are from the industry. Four are independent directors and two of those have been nominated by consumer associations. That means the four independent directors have not been connected with the industry and bring that perspective. The new board came into existence on June 6 and our very first priority is the selection of the chief executive officer, in this case the commissioner. Because the commissioner makes binding decisions, we put a considerable amount of time and effort into our search for the first commissioner. As you know, this commissioner was appointed Aug. 5. Our very first priority was that because we thought it was very important to address the issue of independence and impartiality by choosing the appropriate person for the position.

The other element is that one of the other independent directors is always the chair of the board, so that's another important protector of impartiality and independence. The board doesn't make individual decisions, the commissioner makes those, but those decisions are binding, which interestingly, is another point of contrast from the Human Rights Commission. We didn't make binding decisions because that was done by another body, the tribunal, but here the commissioner makes binding decisions based on the merits [of the complaint].

Other important independence indicators are the fact that there are committees of the board and some of these are chaired by independent directors. Governance is a really, really important part of the independence of the organization. That is actually my focus — to make ensure the appropriate governance structures are put into place as quickly as possible. I recognize the organization has been up and running for some time now and it's been under a provisional board. That work was done in order to be able to receive complaints very early on but in many senses that was like operating in an early-stage startup organization. Now that the permanent board is in place, the priorities around putting the governance and management structures in place, that's now what we must do, all the while continuing to accept complaints and try to resolve them. In some ways it's like trying to retrofit a moving body but that's what we have to do because those processes and structures are important to protect the independence. We know the industry is supposed to fund the CCTS, but we don't know how exactly. Have you set that structure up yet?

Gusella: This is one of the up and coming issues we are working on. We don't have the funding mechanisms set at this time but it is something that is a priority along with our public awareness program. Those are the two up and coming priorities. Our first priority was hiring a CEO and we had other priorities around revising our bylaws and our procedural code so that we could be in compliance with the most recent CRTC decision. We've been meeting almost a couple of times a month to work through these things and now they're on our forward agenda. We're tackling these things one at a time so the answer is at this time we haven't reached any decision on the funding mechanism. Back in June at the annual Telecom Summit, Rogers' head of regulatory affairs Ken Engelhart said his company was on the hook for $1,000 for each complaint it received via the CCTS. We haven't been able to get him to clarify — can you possibly shed some light on his comments?

Gusella: I've never spoken to Mr. Engelhart and I'm not sure how he did his calculations, but I do know that one of the goals of the funding mechanism is to attribute some or all of the cost to the company concerned. That is something we will be working on to see how it can be done, but I can't really comment on his statement because I'm not familiar with how he did his calculations. One of the other issues is that of the recalcitrants. The CRTC requires that any service provider with annual revenue exceeding $10 million must join the CCTS, yet a few companies — notably Shaw and Globalive — have not. How do you plan on dealing with this issue?

Gusella: What I can say is we're attempting to bring all of the companies affected by the CRTC decision in the spring into membership. You can't be more specific as to how you might go about doing that?

Gusella: Well, it's a work in progress. You mentioned that coming up with a publicity strategy is also one of your priorities. Obviously the board will have to decide on that, but do you have a personal preference for how Canadians should be made aware of the CCTS?

Gusella: Not at present. We're going to be reviewing that with the board. The plan is currently under development and we've committed to reviewing it at the board before the end of the year.