Posts Tagged ‘NRC’
This story is getting a lot of attention, at least in Ottawa and Canadian political circles today. I encourage you to read the whole thing, including the online version.
But here’s a précis. Tom Spears is the science writer for my local broadsheet, the Ottawa Citizen. In March, he saw a news story that suggested NASA was flying research planes into snowstorms near Lake Simcoe, and that our own National Research Council might be involved.
You’d think this would be a good news story, right? Back in my time in university media relations, this sort of story was our bread and butter. But you’d be wrong. In some quarters, it feels like an annoyance that must be smothered under a pile of wet wool blankets.
As Spears recounts, his inquiry generated a 52-page trail of e-mails (which he obtained using an access-to-information request) among 11 people. At the end, Spears received an e-mail message that actually doesn’t mention snow, but explains where on the NRC plane the radar devices were located. Here’s the story that resulted.
The whole chain is in this Scribd document: A simple question, a blizzard of bureaucracy
Spears has chronicled (and I’ve chronicled his chronicles at least once) the misadventures of Canadian government communicators in the past. He’s talked about how government communicators wouldn’t take media calls for FIVE HOURS after a major earthquake that affected Canada’s capital city, and how they issued a media advisory for a briefing 25 minutes after the briefing began.
So what’s going on here?
- Some bloggers are fulminating about the culture of top-down control that they argue has created a culture of paranoia within the public service. Spears’s fellow Citizen writer Dan Gardner has related this case to his ideas around open and closed government. I think there’s likely something to that.
- I think there’s also a level of fear and loathing in government around getting something “wrong”, about making a “mistake.” In university media relations, the fact that our faculty had academic freedom insulated us. If the expert we found for a journalist said something outrageous, we wouldn’t get in trouble. If someone at the NRC said something untoward, there would be much kerfuffling, as can be seen by the comments in the Scribd doc around the omission of the Canadian Space Agency. So you copy the world on e-mails. You ensure that the higher-ups and the highest-ups sign off on everything.
- There’s also the tradition that ministers speak for departments and that public servants do not. While in the past that hasn’t prevented scientists within the public service from speaking about their work, there have been rumblings that this is no longer the case. One of the most prominent public calls for change came from the Canadian Science Writers Association during the last election campaign.
- But I also wonder if, for the political masters who set policy for departments and agencies, if there’s no upside from showing what government does RIGHT. It may be that there’s a spoken or unspoken belief that showing good stuff the government’s doing might lead people to think government agencies are valuable and/or worth preserving, which would fly in the face of our current government’s budgetary direction. If your ideology tells you that small government is the way to go, why show off success stories?
I suppose it’s not surprising to me that as I read this, I felt as much sympathy for the government communicators as I did for Tom Spears. They are likely as frustrated by the process as he was. Certainly, I noticed one of my Facebook friends who is a government communicator wincing about the story.And my recent quest to find out information about the government using social media to monitor conversations about the seal hunt led to a similarly unsatisfying response e-mail from a communications officer, several DAYS later.
The saddest part of the email trail comes when the communicators begin to talk about a media visit to the facility next summer. Yes, let’s invite the reporter we just annoyed and treated poorly to come to look at our snowstorm research plane. In the summer. When it’s 40 with the humidex, and the last thing anyone want to think about is snowstorms, and the last story that an editor will accept is a story about snowstorms.
By my count of positions in the government’s electronic directory, there are more than 40 people working in communications at the NRC. I’d bet that if you set those folks free, told them to court people like Tom Spears — not with boozy lunches or junkets, but with really good stories — and make good news happen, they could and would. We did that when I was working in the university sector. It worked. Who woulda thought that if you give journalists good story ideas, they’ll pick ‘em up and run with them?
It’s unfortunate that ideology, bureaucracy, paranoia, or something is handcuffing our government and its employees and keeping them from doing so.
UPDATE: Science writer Margaret Munro files this story for Postmedia about Environment Canada’s insructions to its scientists attending a conference on polar science. There appears to be some difference of opinion about the “instructions.”
Mark Johnson, an Environment Canada spokesperson, says there is nothing unusual about the plan, which he describes as “standard practice” and consistent with the government’s overall communication policy.
Others see it as the latest evidence of the warped culture of obsessive information control inside the Harper government.
“Until now such a crude heavy-handed approach to muzzle Canadian scientists, prior to a significant international Arctic science conference hosted by Canada, would have been unthinkable,” says a senior scientist, who has worked for Environment Canada for decades. He asked not to be identified due to the possibility of repercussions from Ottawa.
“The memo is clearly designed to intimidate government scientists from Environment Canada,” he says. “Why they would do such an unethical thing, I can’t even begin to imagine, but it is enormously embarrassing to us in the international world of science.”
UPDATE: April 24: A blog post by PostMedia’s Mike deSouza quotes Environment Minister Peter Kent on his department’s media management practice:
“There is nothing new in the email that was sent to attendees…It is established practice to coordinate media availability. In fact, many of our younger scientists seek advice from our departmental communications staff. Where we run into problems is when journalists try to lead scientists away from science and into policy matters. When it comes to policy, ministers address those issues.”
Kent was challenged in this open letter on April 4: