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Elizabeth Payne: CIDA’s approach to ‘loyalty’ is heavy-handed

Canadian International Development Agency employees are being warned to keep criticism of their department to themselves — or face disciplinary action.

Canadian International Development Agency employees are being warned to keep criticism of their department to themselves — or face disciplinary action.

It is part of a newly written code of ethics for the Canadian International Development Agency that appears to interpret the concept of “duty of loyalty” — a foundation of the public service — with a hammer, rather than in the nuanced way it has traditionally been viewed.

All federal government departments are required to update their values and ethics codes, but CIDA’s code stands out.

Not only does it bluntly tell employees not to criticize the agency, which other codes do not, but it is not publicly available on CIDA’s website, as others are.

It appears to be a heavy-handed and secretive way to remind employees of their ethical duties, especially for an agency that has undergone so much criticism and inner turmoil in recent years.

The Treasury Board spells out circumstances under which public criticism may be justified on its website, saying “the duty of loyalty is not absolute.”

They include when an employee is concerned about illegal acts or dangerous government policies. And there is a third exception — when the public servant’s criticism has no impact on his ability to perform his duties effectively or on public perception of that ability.

CIDA’s new Code of Values and Ethics, a copy of which was obtained by the Ottawa Citizen, spells out none of those exceptions.

It simply requires employees to acknowledge a document that says, among other things: “We do not publicly criticize CIDA or its representatives,” something other departments don’t do.

A CIDA spokesperson noted that the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act outlines “circumstances where a public servant may be justified in public disclosure of an allegation of wrongdoing” and said specific behaviours expected from CIDA staff have been added to its code “to guide our activities and be integrated into our decisions.

“They must be interpreted considering our laws, rights and obligations, for example, in respect to the right to disclosure of wrongdoing and recognized boundaries of the duties of loyalty.”

Which means that there are exceptions to the rule that employees do not “publicly criticize CIDA or its representatives” and those exceptions are spelled out elsewhere.

It is easy to see how the CIDA code could, however, have a chilling effect, especially during times of government cuts. It also raises questions about why CIDA, which has been the subject of intense public scrutiny and criticism in recent years, felt it had to specifically ask employees to sign a pledge not to criticize the department, something other departments have not done.

Message control has frequently been a point of conflict for the Conservative government. The government requires that interviews with scientists must first be cleared by officials and requests have often been turned down.

The government has been accused of muzzling scientists and stonewalling journalists looking for interviews with scientists. And several media outlets, including the Citizen, have published the results of access to information requests detailing how many staff it took to respond to a question.

Last year the Citizen’s Tom Spears wrote that it took 11 staffers at the National Research Council to answer a question on a study about snow. In response to an access to information request he got 50 pages of emails from those 11 staffers.

When he called NASA, which worked jointly on the project, he had all the information he needed from a scientist in 15 minutes.