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COOL HAND LUKE, Strother Martin, Robert Donner, 1967
COOL HAND LUKE, Strother Martin, Robert Donner, 1967

Globe editorial

‘What we’ve got here is failure to communicate’ Add to ...

How many federal civil servants does it take to answer a question? On Sunday, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF), a non-profit group based in Ottawa, took a stab at an answer when it reported that the federal government has 3,325 Information Services employees, a classification of civil servants that covers all aspects of communications, at an annual cost of $263-million.

The CTF says the 3,325 figure is down from a peak of 3,824 in 2010 but higher than the 3,163 on staff in 2006 when the Conservatives took power. As well, the numbers do not include communications staff at independent tribunals, the RCMP, the military and the Canada Revenue Agency. Nor does it include political staff. Nor members of the “executive group,” that thick layer cake of managers and assistant deputy ministers at the top of the bureaucratic food chain. It is safe to say that the CTF figure is conservative.

What do all these people do for a quarter of a billion dollars? And are there too many of them? It’s hard to say. A “senior communications strategist” at the Treasury Board – one of the 3,325 – responded to a query to that effect by e-mailing back three bullet-pointed sentences. Stripped-mined for their only nuggets of usable information, they reveal that the number of information service employees has stayed “relatively stable” for five years and that they do a lot of different things in a busy media world.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is well known for the control he and his office wield over the government’s message. He holds few press conferences, and many photo ops. In 2012, the British scientific journal Nature criticized the Harper government for preventing federal scientists from speaking to the press without prior approval from communications staff. Last year, Canada’s Information Commissioner, Suzanne Legault, said in her annual report that there has been a “clear deterioration in the access to information system,” which Canadians use to gain access to government documents and data when regular channels don’t work.

Information and its communication lie at the heart of democracy. If taxpayers are spending that kind of money to hear from their government, they deserve more information flow and less information control. Too often today, it feels like Ottawa is spending $263-million a year to not communicate with Canadians.

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