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Politicians hate it when bureaucrats get credit

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Dr. Fisaha Unduche takes over as chief provincial flood forecaster.

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Dr. Fisaha Unduche takes over as chief provincial flood forecaster. Photo Store

Given its placement at the soggy bottom of a former glacial lake, Winnipeg will forever face the intermittent threat of floods and the irregular nuisance of mosquitos.

How to manage an abundance of water is one of the most important tasks on the wettest patch of the Canadian Prairies. So it stands to reason we care about the people granted jobs that might seem mundane in cities where deluges and insects are not so prominent.

In the past two weeks, Winnipeggers have been introduced to a new chief city mosquito fighter, Ken Nawolsky, and a new provincial flood forecaster, Fisaha Unduche.

Nawolsky fills the position vacated last summer by Taz Stuart, one of the most popular civil servants in the City of Winnipeg's recent history, thanks in part to his willingness to engage the public through the media.

Unduche takes on a job briefly held by Phillip Mutulu, who had the misfortune of taking over from longtime flood forecaster Alf Warkentin shortly before the record Assiniboine River flood of 2011.

The pressure on both officials is immense, partly because of the celebucrat nature of their jobs: The bug boss and the flood forecaster are two of the only civil servants ordinary people are able to name.

Some would argue this is a product of a mainstream-media obsession with floods and mosquitoes in this province. Others may argue governments make celebrities out of bureaucrats by forcing them in front of microphones and cameras.

Either way, the city and the province had no choice but to hold news conferences to introduce Nawolsky and Unduche because citizens have got used to knowing who these people are.

If politicians had their way, no one would ever know the name of a public servant of any sort, whether it is the head of a department, a skilled professional or a manager at any level of the city, province or federal government.

It's not that elected officials have an insatiable desire to take credit for anything and everything a government does. It's that people in power like to be able execute that power.

When a bureaucrat has a public profile, elected officials are forced to cede some of the control they crave. A public servant with a name represents a potential political liability, if not an outright threat, especially if they engage in the unfortunate habit of stating facts that contradict political aims.

At the federal level, it was at first dismaying and eventually depressing to see the Conservatives muzzle environmental scientists by tightly controlling media access to researchers and academics. The feds may be the worst offender, but they're hardly alone in the practice.

The province maintains a tight control over flood-forecasting messaging in the fear ordinary people may misunderstand a probabilistic forecast -- a long-term outlook where a range of outcomes is possible under different weather circumstances.

While the U.S. National Weather Service publishes all of its flood-forecasting data, Manitoba crafts a very specific message in an effort to ensure nothing comes back to haunt politicians in the event weather pushes actual flood outcomes to edges of the bell curve.

Similarly, the city has tried to keep a tight lid on any news about mosquito-control activities, mainly by refusing any media access to its former entomologist outside of a weekly news conference.

This reached the height of comedy in 2010, a mosquito-heavy election year, when both Mayor Sam Katz and former St. Vital Coun. Gord Steeves pledged to reduce the size of malathion-free buffer zones.

What became apparent through provincial documents was there was no way to reduce the buffer zones more than 10 metres -- something Taz Stuart knew very well and presumably tried to tell the politicians.

When politicians say they rely on the advice of the experts in the public service, what they all too often mean is they like to blame those experts when something goes wrong. And when something goes right, politicians attempt to take credit.

Perhaps it would be better if voters knew the name of every public servant, as opposed to just the bug boss and the flood forecaster. Accountability would certainly improve -- and credit would be given where credit is due.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 25, 2014 B3

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Updated on Tuesday, February 25, 2014 at 6:25 AM CST: Replaces photo

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott.

Bartley appears every second Wednesday on CityTV’s Breakfast Television. His work has also appeared on CBC Radio and in publications such as National Geographic Traveler, explore magazine and Western Living.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives
Email: bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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