Credibility. In a word, it is a defining characteristic all ombudsmen seek. For Guy Parent, it is the vital peg on which all of his efforts hang.
The Veterans Ombudsman holds a somewhat unique role among counterparts across the country, being both an advocate for a growing and varied constituency of just over 700,000 veterans from the Canadian Armed Forces and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, as well as a special advisor to the Minister of Veterans Affairs, representing a department which itself has a client base of over 200,000 whom he also represents.
At a time when stories about the treatment of Canada’s war fighters and police officers garner front page headlines, the role requires a deft touch, balancing the needs of veterans – many ill and injured – and their families with the demands of advocacy groups and the watchful interest of politicians, government departments, the public and the media, all while advising a department and its minister on ways to improve systemic issues.
The Veterans Ombudsman has been a highly visible and, at times, highly controversial position since it was first created in 2007. Parent’s predecessor, Colonel (Ret’d) Pat Stogran, the first veterans ombudsman, put the office on the map with a vocal media campaign challenging the government’s handling of veterans’ benefits, health care and many aspects of the New Veterans Charter.
While Parent appreciates Stogran’s forthrightness and the awareness for veterans’ issues that he generated, he took a decidedly different tack. In fact, during his first year Parent faced criticism from some that he was too quiet. Behind the scenes, however, he was meeting with members of various constituencies to explain his position and his approach.
“You have got to bring awareness to the issues first, and obviously my predecessor did that,” he says. “My responsibility became to maintain the momentum and interest that he had built. But I believe in a more quiet approach. When you come into the role of an ombudsman, I think you have to sit down with the people you are going to have to deal with and make sure they understand your position. If people understand your role and what you are trying to do, you can get them to work together much better.
“The initial period of my mandate, in fact, had to do with finding ways of building credibility with all sides. I spent a lot of time on outreach, on meeting people and saying, ‘Here is what we are going to do.’ If you don’t have the credibility, you can go five years and not accomplish much. You are better off to spend the year building your credibility and then doing the hard work.”
The dual role of advocate and advisor might seem a conflict to some, but Parent believes the distinction is often a matter of language. “When you advise the minister on issues, you are in fact advocating for the veterans as well,” he explains, adding that it is often an opportunity to introduce new ideas. “I can talk to the minister about concerns, about issues that are emerging in the community without having to go through a public investigation and report.”
He also reminds ministers and others that he is an appointee of the government of Canada, which owes a debt to its veterans, not any one party, and his reports and comments would be the same regardless of the party in power. “I think it is important to do that right from the start.”
Key to Parent’s approach is an emphasis on evidence-based analysis. Like other ombudsmen, he is moving away from simply focusing on investigative reports with headline-grabbing findings to tackling issues, such as the New Veterans Charter, by first conducting an open review of the issue and then making broad recommendations, all backed by data.
The Office of the Veterans Ombudsman (OVO) has also done each report in collaboration with VAC. “Drafts are sent to the department and they have a chance to verify all the data,” Parent says. “We won’t change our interpretation to make the department look better, but we will certainly correct factual errors. I think this has led to a high degree of credibility toward our office.”
The office’s recommendations are deliberately broad to allow the department to develop and offer its own solutions. “If you are too prescriptive, people get frustrated because it might not be within their realm of possibility, but they know what they can do,” he says, though he acknowledges that Veterans Affairs Canada is plagued by the silos that permeate many large organizations and that staff involved in one program might not recognize how changes in that program will affect others. “We see it because we have a higher level of flight.”
A second cornerstone is consistent and persistent communications. With so many commentators on veterans issues, information can easily be distorted or misunderstood. The OVO’s approach to creating reports – with wide ranging consultation and dissemination – has helped “level the playing field as far as information is concerned [and encouraged] people to argue about the right things.” Nonetheless, Parent has turned to social media and a regular blog to write “myth busting” articles about the intricacies of the New Veterans Charter.
He has pushed VAC to equally communicate a “clear and concise message” about processes and benefits. After the OVO created an information management system – essentially a wiki – and a benefits navigator for frontline staff to assist clients with benefits and legal and procedural issues, he encouraged the minister to consider a similar tool for VAC staff. “He pursued it and VAC has introduced the full browser to their staff and further rolled it out, in a condensed version, to the veterans’ community and it is now available to any veteran on their external website. This slimmed down version maybe is not as useful as we thought it could have been, but we are working on that with the department.”
Parent was also quick to recognize the opportunity presented by Blueprint 2020 and the Clerk’s message to leverage technology to deliver services in a more effective and efficient manner. In a response to Destination 2020, he urged VAC to “revolutionize” the way it engages with veterans and make its information more transparent.
“We are in the business of service delivery and we have departments in Canada that serve millions of citizens and do that effectively. It is very hard to accept the fact that we serve a population of 200,000 that is often hurt or ill and yet we have processes that are so complex,” he says.
At present, he argues, the system is based on adjudication rather than audit. Revenue Canada will trust you to file your income tax report while VAC requires “veterans and their families to prove themselves. We need to move to (the CRA) kind of a concept for veterans, that if they have the service and an injury and the link between the two, they get the benefits. If 90 percent of those applications are accepted, then maybe you don’t need to spend that much time in adjudication.”
He notes the success with the Veterans Review and Appeal Board which, following an OVO report, has “turned around into an organization that is less court-like and much more engaging with the veterans and their families, facilitating people coming forward. We don’t want people to be discouraged to come forward and apply for things.”
Technology also presents an opportunity to better streamline processes as serving Canadian Armed Forces members transition to civilian life as veterans, especially where health and rehabilitation services are required.
“We talked about transition yet each department seems to be working independently,” says Parent, who has recently partnered with the Canadian Forces Ombudsman, Gary Walbourne, to work on the issue. “Right now it is a wall of transition; we want to make it a path of transition. We want the people from DND to reach out and follow up on their injured soldiers, but we want VAC to reach in. Right now DND pushes the soldier over the wall and sometimes the landing is not smooth. It shouldn’t be that way; it should be arm in arm along a path.”
As a former Chief Warrant Officer of the Canadian Forces who spent much of his career looking out for his fellow soldiers, Parent was an astute choice for Veterans Ombudsman. As he begins his fifth and final year in the role – and 50th in public service – he wants to tackle one last challenge: the harmonization of the complex legislation that governs veterans’ affairs, including the Pension Act, the War Veterans Allowance Act and the New Veterans Charter.
His advice to a successor or other ombudsmen? A little outreach at the beginning of your mandate to clarify your position can go a long way to preventing false expectations and building credibility. He also cautions not to get too caught up in the day- to-day of operations of the organization and its case files. Trust your people to manage that work while you promote the product. Getting lost in the details of cases makes it hard to avoid small arguments. “But then I’m blessed to have a wonderful team,” he says.