Ministry moves to tighten rules following inquiries

British Columbia's ministry of children and family development is moving to tighten rules on how it hires consultants, following inquiries about a child rights adviser who was appointed without using competitive process. In the late summer of 2006, the ministry hand picked Brent Parfitt, a child rights adviser known to its deputy minister, using a secondment agreement. Unlike most secondees drafted from their employers, the ministry arranged for Mr. Parfitt to bill like a contractor, paying him $275 an hour, a rate that over a full work year would have earned him more than the highest paid bureaucrat in the public service.

That unusual deal - which saw Mr. Parfitt seconded from his own one-person consulting company to work for the ministry - earned the former deputy ombudsman and senior government lawyer $176,170.67 from the late summer of 2006 through to April, 2008 for part-time work, according to documents obtained through a freedom of information request.

By seconding Mr. Parfitt, the government didn't need to put that work out to tender, the standard process for contracts valued at $25,000 or more unless only one contractor is qualified for the job.

New Democrat critic Maurine Karagianis has called that arrangement "completely outrageous," adding, "this is not the way government is supposed to operate."

But ministry communications director Kelly Gleeson said the government wasn't avoiding the procurement process. Instead, Mr. Gleeson said Mr. Parfitt was seconded because he "directly reported to the DM" so a contract "would not have been appropriate."

The ministry has contended that the agreement "conformed to government's core policy."

But following inquiries about Mr. Parfitt's secondment agreement, Children and Family Development Minister Mary Polak has decided any adviser retained in future for similar work will either be hired as an employee or through a standard contracting process.

That change would eliminate the possibility of being seconded, and then paid as a contractor, as was the case with Mr. Parfitt. Minister Polak also said there will be a clear separation in pay between legal and policy work, a distinction it did not make in Mr. Parfitt's agreement.

"While the agreement meets all government contracting and policy standards - on reflection, we believe in the future that we can go beyond those standards to ensure greater clarity and transparency," she explained.

Unlike most secondees, Mr. Parfitt didn't receive a salary, instead submitting detailed billings to the deputy at $275 an hour - a rate he was given because he was classified as an "ad hoc legal counsel."

But Mr. Parfitt, who was called to the bar in 1972, said, "I should make it clear I was hired as a consultant and not a lawyer to the ministry because there's a huge distinction."

Despite that distinction, though, Mr. Gleeson said Mr. Parfitt was entitled to that classification and its associated rate because of his "legal background and senior level of expertise."

And that rate - which Mr. Parfitt wasn't involved in setting - applied "regardless of whether he was giving legal advice, doing policy development or a combination of the two."

Meanwhile, Mr. Parfitt said such pay "always humbles me" But, by the same token, that's the going rate."

As for deputy minister Lesley du Toit's past association with Mr. Parfitt, Mr. Gleeson said the two served together on a ministry blue ribbon panel that was set up in 2002. They were also associates with a Victoria-based non-profit organization, the International Institute for Child Rights and Development.

But Mr. Gleeson said the deputy minister hired Mr. Parfitt, who was then a member of the United Nations committee on the rights of the child, because of his credentials.

For his own part, Mr. Parfitt said any suggestion to the contrary is "crazy considering the work I've done for the ministry for 35 years" highlighting the fact he's "locally available yet I have an international perspective."

"Forget the fact she knew me - just looking at my credentials and my history with the ministry alone, I would think that I'd be the candidate someone would go to" - adding he's also been a child rights consultant to several foreign governments.

So what did the provincial government go to Mr. Parfitt to do?

Mr. Parfitt said he helped establish and implement the ministry's new guiding principles, ensuring their consistency with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child - which, by law, government is required to abide by.

He also created Kinnections - a youth mentoring program for kids in care. And he was involved in setting up the government's youth advisory council, which allows young people to share their knowledge and experiences with the ministry.

According to his billings, most of that work involved writing briefing notes or interacting with ministry staff. Sometimes that work took hours.

But sometimes government paid him for the five, 10 or 15 minutes it would take to call or email one of those staffers - even if that was the only work he did that day. Although Mr. Parfitt clarified those billings don't account for the "thought that goes in behind the conversation."

In other instances, government also paid him for the time he spent scheduling meetings, as well as making accommodation and travel arrangements.

Mr. Gleeson said all those payments were "appropriate under the secondment agreement" - as was the fact government paid him for the 30 minutes he spent ordering 100 copies of a book about organizational change.

Mr. Parfitt said the ministry asked him to place that order after he gave a presentation on that book - spending two hours tracking down the publisher after civil servants were unable to locate copies.

"I didn't want to bill for my whole time," he explained. "But it was a tremendous amount of time for a stupid little thing that no doubt someone could have tracked down as well."

Mr. Parfitt said then children and family development minister Tom Christensen also asked him to attend a news conference to launch Kinnections, where he was recognized for his contribution to the project - and later paid for the hour he spent at that event and the two hours it took him to get there and back.

Asked if the ministry put any controls in place for when Mr. Parfitt's services should be used, Mr. Gleeson stated, "Placing a limit on contact would be limiting advice which would run counter to the point of establishing the secondment agreement."

4 Comments

These chronic stories never cease to amaze me. While the government claims it can't pay on-call part-time paramedics in small town BC more than $2 an hour it seems always able to justify paying some overstuffed consultant $275 an hour.

So let me get this straight: the government has rules to ensure fair contracting and equal opportunities, but you can get around them if you second the consultant from his own firm instead of contracting with them? How crazy is that?

The ONLY thing that is transparent about all of this is that it looks like it was a scheme to get around policy, end of story.

Who, exactly, approved this scheme?

In asserting that this arrangement corresponds to government policy, might we find dozens more of these cozy arrangements in other ministries.

Brent Parfit may have an acceptable background in child services, but there are dozens of people who are just as qualified in this work than he is and who come a whole lot cheaper - they WORK at MCFD and are already paid to do the kind of work Parfit was paid big bucks to do. The activities listed as his accomplishments are the very kinds of things a policy analyst would generally do. What was going on in the ministry policy shop that would have prevented a staffperson there from doing this work? The tax payers would like to know.

Boo to this government for sticking up for the shenanigans that have gone on and continue to go on at MCFD!

Kelly Gleeson asserts that this follows government policy. I'd like to see that policy, because I don't think it exists.

Would Gleeson care to post that policy here for the public to see?

Two thoughts:

#1. Good work Sean! Way to go Sean!! I think the CTF is going to hire you if you ever tire of your great work!!!

#2. Good work Minister Mary :-). As a consultant professionally, great to see our industry reigned in to protect our reputation(s). I normally bill by the half hour increment - anything like a 15 minute task is incidential & happens in our line of work.

Yes, no kidding.

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