Monday, November 29, 2010

How to make government irrelevant

There’s a great story in The Ottawa Citizen that serves as a case study in how to make government not only ineffective, but ultimately irrelevant. It concerns the relatively mild (thankfully) earthquake that hit Ottawa on June 23 of this year.

The article provides a complete timeline of the government’s failure to respond to the public and media about the earthquake until some hours after the event. In fact the media had to rely on the US Geological Survey web site for timely information about the strength and the epicentre of the quake because Natural Resource’s phone lines and web servers were down and most civil servants were still standing outside their buildings waiting for the all clear to return to their desks and phones. (Clearly lots wrong with that picture and some real work to be done there.)

But the piece that strikes at the heart of government ineffectiveness is a description of the approvals process required before Natural Resources could host a media conference call to explain to Canadians what had happened.

The first issue is that it wasn’t until 2 1/2 hours after the event that someone decided a media conference call might be a good idea. But then it still took more than 2 additional hours before the call was held.

At 4:15 p.m., the department decided to hold a conference call — hopefully within the hour — to link its earthquake experts with all the reporters at once. Seismologists were standing ready in English and French.

But there was a hitch: a tangled approval process for notifying the media about the conference call. Even though the announcement was 75 words long (not including phone numbers), it needed:

- Approval in principle from an assistant deputy minister — but still subject to approval of “media lines,” a sort of script outlining the department’s central message.

- Approval from the office of minister Christian Paradis.

- Translating the announcement of the conference call.

- Approving the translation.

- Approval from the Privy Council Office.

- Posting the announcement on the Natural Resources website — and immediately pulling it off again, because media lines were not yet approved by the assistant deputy minister.

- Approving the media lines.

- Last-minute copy editing, literally. One minute before the call, someone felt the French copy should list the time as 18 h, not 18h00.

- Finally, at 6:24 p.m., sending out the conference call invitation on a commercial wire service — 24 minutes after the call began.

When the call was actually held (at 6 PM) only 3 media representatives were on the line, which wasn’t surprising since the advisory hadn’t even been sent out yet. So it was basically a waste of time as, in the final analysis, the media and the Canadian public got their information from other, non-Canadian-government sources.

But that’s what controlling the message ultimately gets you – irrelevance.

Andrew Weaver of the University of Victoria’s Earth and Ocean Sciences School summed it up best when he said, “The prime minister believes that the civil service is there to work for him and his government, and not the Canadian public”.

How true.

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