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For many of us, the word “fraud” brings to mind images of shady businessmen and disgruntled employees. Or political players making dirty deals and exchanging favours… not our hallowed halls of public education and higher learning. But new Alberta legislation could change the way we conceptualize fraud and misconduct in our public sector. More importantly, it could serve to encourage more of our public sector employees to speak out when they witness misconduct.
Bill 4, the Public Interest Disclosure Act (also known as the Whistleblower Protection Act) is set to be legislated in late spring of this year. Whistleblower protection already exists on a federal level under the Criminal Code but Bill 4 is the first of its kind to specifically speak to Alberta’s public sector, including its educational institutions.
Whistleblower protection is meant to encourage individuals to speak out if they witness any misconduct that has to do with taxpayer dollars, public health and safety or violations of the law. For many in the public sector, including schools, whistleblower hotlines will continue to be the best option for receiving complaints while staying on the right side of this new legislation.
It may be unpleasant to think about fraud in our school system but the reality is that government and public administration, including educational institutions, is one of the three most commonly victimized industry sectors .
And while whistleblower focus has traditionally been on financial fraud—typically in purchasing and procurement—the emergence of whistleblower hotlines has shed light on issues involving health and safety and harassment—hot button issues that are only becoming more pressing in the public consciousness.
When we hear about tragedies taking place in our schools, or in schools in the United States, it is hard to get beyond the details of the horror and all the larger, unanswerable questions about why and how something like this could happen. But what this Act will hopefully do is inspire people to speak out against what they see as health and safety issues in our schools before tragedy strikes.
For example, are doors able to be barricaded? Do visitors have free access to students? Are front doors locked? Are teachers able to get help when needed? Under this new Act, employeesand non-employees alike can feel secure reporting these issues and knowing that the administration has to address their concerns.
At the end of the day, I believe the real impact of this legislation is that it brings to the forefront of the public consciousness the understanding that public sector organizations are accountable for their actions and will be held accountable.
Furthermore, it reminds us that public sector employees should also be accountable. We want them to report more of what’s going on in the workplace and speak out when something is amiss.
Twenty years ago, there was a perception that if you got a job in the public sector, you would be staying in that organization for the rest of your career. Think of the benefits, the pension. But the dynamic of our employment environment, even in the public sector, has changed all of that. Now, the average time spent in a job is only between three and six years. There isn’t the same commitment to organizations as there used to be and the result has been increasing apathy among employees—it is easier to move on to a new job than rock the boat and try to speak out against issues.
Hopefully, one benefit of Bill 4 is that it will inspire employees to become more vocal when they see something is wrong. Even transient members of the workforce will know that no harm can come to them by speaking out and, with legislation that holds the institutions accountable, their speaking out will not be in vain.
2 According to the Report to Nations on Occupational Fraud and Abuse – 2012 Global Fraud Study.
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