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Op-ed by Commissioner Dion

​​​​​​Public officials are expected always to act in the public interest
by Mario Dion, Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner
Op-ed  published in The Hill Times​ 
January 20, 2020 

Earlier this month marked two years since I was appointed as Canada's second Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, responsible for a number of duties under the Conflict of Interest Act and the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons​. I have had ample opportunity during that time to reflect on my role in relation to the two regimes administered by the Office. These regimes seek to ensure that elected and appointed officials do not use their positions to further their private interests or those of anyone else. In order to do so, these public officials must have a good understanding of what is expected of them.

Public officials are expected to always act in the public interest. They are responsible first and foremost for ensuring that their decisions are guided by the public interest and never by their own private interests or those of their families, relatives or friends. A comprehensive framework setting out rules governing conduct is essential to ensure that this fundamental value is always top of mind. It is also important that when contraventions occur, public officials are held accountable.

Transparency and rigour are key to our ability to ensure that those who hold public office continue to abide by the rules. I have defined transparency as openness, clarity, unobstructed access, and disclosures, when interacting with, or acting on behalf of, the public. The Act and the Code have strict confidentiality requirements, which can create challenges for our Office in terms of transparency. I have always undertaken to be forthright about our Office and its work while respecting legal requirements. I strongly believe that Canadians should receive as much information as possible to ensure that elected and appointed officials are held accountable. One of the best tools our Office currently uses to demonstrate transparency is our public registry.

 The registry, which is available on our website, includes summaries of information submitted on assets, liabilities, outside activities and other interests. It also contains public statements of gifts of $200 or more and sponsored travel, as well as administrative penalties and the compliance orders I impose as Commissioner. Last year, the registry was visited nearly 30,000 times and I aim to see that number increase significantly as more Canadians become aware of this tool.

Upon taking office, I signalled that education and outreach would be a key focus of my approach. Public officials need to understand their obligations under both regimes. I aim to help them better understand their obligations in order for them to avoid putting themselves in a potential situation of conflict. To do so, our Office supports them by providing confidential advice and a range of education and outreach activities.

During my tenure, we have started moving away from a traditional "classroom" approach by developing webinars to accommodate busy schedules, broadened the use of social media, and have been proactively seeking a range of engagement opportunities. This is to improve the understanding of those who must comply and of others such as the public, media, and public servants. Most recently, Commissioner of Lobbying, Nancy Bélanger, and I held a well-attended teleconference for public office holders about their post-employment obligations. In 2018, we signed a memorandum of understanding to cooperate on education and outreach and we will continue to pursue these types of opportunities and others as a key fundamental approach to building understanding and compliance.

During the remainder of my mandate, I will continue to ensure openness and transparency in our administration. And, when I'm working on educating elected and appointed officials as well as the public and the media, I will make sure that we are as forthcoming and clear as possible in our explanations of the Act or the Code.

I am also eager to see what tools can be leveraged in the near future to best support Parliament in the rigorous and non-partisan application of the Act and the Code. I expect that in the future, we will be able to make use of new technologies that will give us even more accessible and resource-efficient communications options.


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