Consultants facing shorter leashes

Anyone hoping that the "professional reliance" model in the resource-development sphere would be junked will probably be disappointed with the direction the NDP government is taking.

The practice of letting companies hire their own consultants to oversee compliance with regulations will likely carry on. Oversight is going to be beefed up. Standards will be more stringent. But there's no expressed thought at this point of government taking back that big, costly responsibility.

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If you were comforted by the thought the woods would soon be crawling with new government inspectors, you'll be disappointed with the recommendations from a recent review of the issue.

On the other hand, some in the business and resource sectors are unhappy even with a review, and insist there is no problem.

B.C. has been relying on the model for 15 years, since it arose out of the fabled core review in 2001-2. The first-term B.C. Liberal government launched two simultaneous crusades, one to cut costs and staff, the other to reduce red tape.

So hundreds of technicians and inspectors were laid off - 1,500 by the union's count - and the regime was started in which government set big-picture natural-resource management objectives, companies hired professionals to figure out how to meet them, then the government would check back periodically to ensure compliance.

The previous NDP government had taken a stab at paring down oversight as well, culling hundreds of pages out of the forest practices code. But the Liberals took it to new heights.

The association of licensed professionals within government told independent reviewer Mark Haddock it has 25 per cent fewer members (about 300) now than it did in 1999.

The new model stayed out of the news for years, but watchdogs started raising their eyebrows. The ombudsperson, the Forest Practices Board and the auditor general flagged shortcomings.

The phrase "professional reliance" started appearing in headlines after the Mount Polley tailings-pond dam collapse in 2014.

There were questions about whether it was a factor in how off-guard everyone was caught.

Enter the NDP government, which went to town about the shortcomings while in opposition. Addressing the failures of the system was written into the confidence agreement the NDP and Green Party signed.

Minister of Environment George Heyman ordered up a study by Haddock and it was released a few weeks ago. Heyman embraced the recommendations.

So what's likely coming is a general tightening of control over the consultants who advise resource companies and others on how to meet government objectives.

The review recommends establishing an office of professional regulation and oversight to cover the work of agrologists, biologists, foresters, engineers and the like. It would be an agent of government that is separate from the natural-resource ministries, focused on professional-governance issues. It would oversee legislation related to the various professional disciplines and "regulate their professional organizations as needed."

It also urges standardization of 10 elements of professional governance through umbrella legislation. It would include a new power to regulate firms, require continuing professional development, clarify public interest duties, and address codes of ethics and whistleblower protection.

The various associations have disciplinary processes, but Haddock found that many government employees and members of the public don't have confidence the system is working.

Toughening up oversight would be a marked change in the current practice. Haddock found a "culture of deference" within government toward external professionals. The ministries don't have the staff, mandates or experience to question or balk at their judgments. There is considerable reluctance to file complaints.

And many think the associations have no track record of holding their members to account.

"A culture of deference may show up as reduced willingness to take enforcement actions, or an emphasis on compliance over enforcement measures, or low administrative penalties that do not achieve deterrence goals," wrote Haddock.

Government is relying on the consultants as much as the companies are. Some of them explain their decisions, provide background and answer all ministry questions.

But some are much less co-operative, and challenge the government's right even to ask questions.

They'll still be working when the changes are imposed, but they'll be facing a lot more constraints.

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