BY KATHRYN MAY, OTTAWA CITIZEN FEBRUARY 21, 2014
OTTAWA — The final-move policy that caught Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie in a political snare will be scrutinized as part of a review of the federal relocation program as the Conservatives prepare to seek bids for a contractor to manage the moves of 20,000 public servants, military and RCMP sent to new postings every year.
Treasury Board officials say the review of the Integrated Relocation Program (IRP) was scheduled anyway when Leslie landed in hot water for claiming $72,000 in expenses by using a benefit that allows all long-serving Canadian Forces members one final paid move when they retire.
Defence Minister Rob Nicholson was quick to jump on Leslie, who is a now an adviser to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, and ordered an immediate review into the military’s relocation program, including its final-move policy.
The review, however, comes as the government prepares a new request for proposal for the IRP contract. The RFP is already late and it’s unclear whether the overall program review will further delay the contracting process.
The existing contract expires this year and the government wanted a new contractor in place by December.
Public Works and Government Services Canada, which is handling the procurement, was unable to explain the delay but said that “the government continues to consider its business requirements and options, as a result of a number of consultations with industry.”
Relocating federal employees costs the government an estimated $500 million a year — on top of what it pays moving companies to move furniture and household possessions. The government relocates between 15,000 and 20,000 federal employees a year, with military moves accounting for about 85 per cent of those moves. The cost of the average move ranges between $20,000 for a tenant and $35,000 for a homeowner.
The Integrated Relocation Program contract has been a thorn in the government’s side since it came to power in 2006.
A bombshell auditor general report in 2006 sparked a long court battle that culminated last year when an Ontario Superior Court judge found that bureaucrats rigged two of the contracts to favour Royal LePage Relocation Services — now Brookfield Global Relocation Services — and ordered the government pay an unprecedented award of $40 million in damages to the losing bidder Envoy Relocation Services.
The Conservatives let Brookfield manage the contract despite the report and called new tenders in 2009 that were also dogged by controversy. Auditor General Michael Ferguson is now investigating awarding and management of that contract.
The government manages the relocations of employees under the umbrella of the Integrated Relocation Program but the specific benefits, services and assistance differ between public servants, RCMP and the military. The responsibility for the overall program rests with Treasury Board.
Stephanie Rea, a spokesperson for Treasury Board President Tony Clement, said the relocation directive governing the moves of public servants is reviewed every three years and is currently scheduled for negotiations at the joint union-management National Joint Council.
“The Integrated Policy Program for the public service is part of the ongoing NJC review and traditionally the RCMP and the Canadian Forces mirror the policies we negotiate and approve,” she said.
The IRP program was created in 1999 to ensure military and other public servants are moved with minimal disruption to their lives. The program has been tweaked over the years but the overall approach has remained unchanged.
Outgoing military ombudsman Pierre Daigle, who had long pressed for significant changes to the military’s relocation program, said he would be disappointed if the review failed to address his priorities for change.
Transfers are the biggest stresses on military families who can face half a dozen moves or more over the course of a career. A major study conducted into the well-being of Canada’s military families found the relocation program is “a source of vigorous dissatisfaction among CF members and their families.”
Daigle said the biggest complaints are over the IRP’s Home Equity Assistance policies, which some members blame for huge losses they face on home sales when forced to move to a new posting. He said the directives are highly complex, dense and are written in bureaucratic language that members don’t understand.
He said the DND promised to rewrite and simplify the relocation directives for the military for the 2013 posting season, but he has now been assured it will be ready for the 2015 posting season.
Bruce Atyeo, whose company Envoy Relocation won a lawsuit against the government’s handling of the 2002 and 2004 relocation contracts, said the IRP is a fair and “forward-thinking policy” but is so badly written that it is open to loopholes and abuses.
“Policies have to be reviewed. Times change and influence them,” he said. “This is good policy but badly written, and the problem is that it is easier for people to come up with schemes to beat the system. The policies have to be clear and focused on transferring employees.”
Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Tom Lawson defended the principle of the final-move policy but acknowledged a policy “acceptable in one era may have to be tightened down in others.”
“There are benefits that a nation decides to afford their men and women in uniform, their men and women in the public service, the men and women in the RCMP, and they will swing one way or the other. In times they can be very generous, in other times they need to tighten up,” he told reporters.