The federal weather guy was happy.
It was a relatively mild spring day and he was sauntering around town handing out stickers with his phone number.
“Call if there’s weather news,” he said. “I can talk to you.”
No wonder the guy was happy – he’s not muzzled.
In this, the federal weather guy is an anomaly.
These days, most civil servants need a stupidly long lead time to answer simple questions posed by the public and the media – a fact that cropped up in the conversation with the chipper weatherman.
Most departments take a week to respond to questions, he said. But because weather events are fleeting, he’s allowed to answer immediately.
No sense talking about the first snowstorm of the season a week after it has melted, he said.
His reference to a week-long delay stood out like a sore thumb because the Hill Times recently reported on Ottawa’s Message Event Proposals.
After a request for information, federal civil servants must fill out the three-page form, which lays out the desired headline, sound bite, web highlight, picture, key questions and official talking points, among other things.
That package is then vetted by the minister’s office, or Prime Minister’s Office. A lead time of three days to a week is needed to process and approve the release of information, according to the Hill Times.
The process has been in place since 2007 and covers virtually every request – except, apparently, weird fogs, mighty winds and other weather oddities.
Tellingly, none of the sources the Hill Times interviewed about these MEPs would do so on the record, fearing recrimination from their superiors, “both bureaucratic and ministerial,” it reported.
If the red tape sounds cumbersome, that’s because it’s meant to be.
The government does not want to release information to the media or the public, even though citizens supposedly “own” the information.
And that insistence on control is having a real impact on government work.
In Foreign Affairs, the hoops are hindering diplomatic efforts because its foreign workers have been prevented from doing any off-the-cuff communication efforts aimed at improving Canada’s image in foreign lands. Rather than reacting to a rapidly changing situation, Canadian diplomats must submit their headlines and outline the possible photo ops to the PMO. Then they must wait days for approval from Ottawa.
Meanwhile, the PMO issues self-serving declarations and staged photos several times a day, hoping small-town Canadian papers will pick up the feed.
Here, we’re flooded with tepid declarations, comments and photos – often more than eight a day – from Harper’s inner circle, all part of a sophisticated propaganda campaign aimed at small-town Canada. (Our favourite is the one showing Harper in an oak-panelled Parliament Hill room reading a leather-bound book surrounded by kittens (http://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/feature.asp?pageId=73).
As the PMO figures out the best way to grab warm, fuzzy headlines, you can imagine how the long-drawn-out silence from Canadian officials in crisis-wracked lands like Haiti plays out among people looking for prompt answers to their problems.
Anyone breaking the rules risks being reprimanded, or worse.
“The existence of this draconian, Orwellian, unprecedented prerequisite to clear any and all public statements that might be picked up by the media reflects, in my view, a level of micromanagement in the public service, a lack of confidence, trust and respect and a commitment to total control of the message the likes of which has never been seen before,” one civil servant told the Times.
Civil servants are often their own worst enemies.
The Canadian bureaucracy has a far meeker culture than the US civil service, which, backed up by the US constitution, speak their minds on matters within their specialty.
Canadians are similarly protected by the right to freedom of expression as laid out in the Charter. They just don’t seem to know it. The culture favours secrecy. They often don’t want to pull their head out of the sand, fearing it will get thumped. And these days, they might not be wrong.
Threats and intimidation on the part of the political arm of government have cowed civil servants, who don’t want the hassle. The public has witnessed such recriminations through the government’s attacks on the credibility of Richard Colvin, who was Canada’s second-highest ranking diplomat in Afghanistan and who is widely respected by his peers and colleagues.
If a fellow like that gets clobbered, what message does that send the rank and file?
Ultimately, what’s happening is the political arm of government is micromanaging the message, putting their political fortunes ahead of the best interests of government and the Canadian people. And, in the process, violating the Charter rights of the nation’s citizens and its civil servants.
Those rights are only useful as long as they are used and defended.
Living muzzled in your job is no fun. Having the freedom to talk freely is liberating.
Just track down your nearest Environment Canada weather specialist. (Richard Mostyn)