Dealing with Conflict

Ontario’s system for dealing with conflicts of interest is inclusive and, at the same time, decentralized. In my view, this is one of the strengths of our system. Public sector leaders are expected to manage ethical issues and build an ethical culture within their own organizations. Ethics oversight is not an ‘overlay’ on existing organizations but part of their inherent functioning. Every public servant has an ethics executive, who is usually the deputy minister in a ministry or the chair or CEO of a public body. Our office is a resource for ethics executives generally, and provides ethics training to public body chairs and CEOs.

Public servants in Ontario are governed by the Public Service of Ontario Act, 2006 (PSOA), which places an obligation on each and every public servant to seek the advice of their ethics executive if they believe they may have a real or perceived conflict. A supervisor may also refer a potential conflict relating to a subordinate to the subordinate’s ethics executive. The ethics executive is then responsible for investigating and making a finding or determination on ethics matters within his or her own ministry or public body.

If there is a finding of a real or potential conflict, the ethics executive will provide directions to address or mitigate the conflict or the potential conflict and the public servant is obliged to comply with the directions of their ethics executive. If a sanction or penalty is called for, the ethics executive imposes it according to the realm of progressive discipline which can range from an oral or written warning to outright dismissal. This approach ensures that accountability and enforcement of ethics rules stay with the local administrative authority. However, in more serious cases, such as corruption, bribery or other criminal wrong-doing, the ethics executive would refer the matter to the appropriate law enforcement agency for investigation and possible criminal proceedings.

As Commissioner, I am frequently consulted by ethics executives for my advice and assistance. An ethics executive may also refer a matter to be dealt with by me when it has broad precedential implications or if the ethics executive, him or herself, may be conflicted.

Based on our experience advising public servants, we have found that most public servants who find themselves in a real or potential conflict of interest situation want to do the right thing and the issue is generally not about penalty but about developing an appropriate strategy to mitigate or eliminate the potential or real conflict.

For the system to work properly two ingredients are essential:

  1. Public servants must have the guidance, direction, and tools to become ethically aware and make the right decisions.
  2. Ethics executives must have the expertise and flexibility to give directions to achieve compliance or to apply sanctions along the conflict of interest continuum.

In conclusion, the conflict of interest process in Ontario is part of the larger public service management system. Since the system began in 2007, many matters from all parts of the province have been routinely dealt with within the system, without the need to involve outside counsel or the courts.

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