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Ottawa's Internet clutter

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How many government employees does it take to compose a message with no more than 140 characters, or about 20 words? Well, according to documents obtained by The Canadian Press, the tweets in Industry Canada are the work of dozens of bureaucrats following a 12-step protocol that can involve days or even weeks of planning, writing, rewriting, editing and political oversight before a single message hits the twitterverse.

The finished product is often an inane public service announcement.

The documents outlining the process were for Industry Canada, but a spokesman said the department was merely following "the Treasury Board standard on social-media account management."

The policy would be laughable if it wasn't for the fact taxpayers are on the hook for the army of ciphers that toil in basement offices, churning out useless information for the masses. It's the kind of activity commonly seen in totalitarian regimes, where even simple tasks evolve into complex machines.

It also explains the proliferation of so-called communicators in the federal government, which employed nearly 4,000 communications staff in the 2011-12 fiscal year, according to the Parliamentary Budget Office. That's an increase of 15 per cent since the Conservatives came to power in 2006. And yet it seems Ottawa has never been weaker in explaining its programs.

Social media can play a useful role in government. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are also effective tools for politicians. The problem with the Treasury Board's model, however, is it fails to separate the political from the bureaucratic.

Civil servants should have the power to distribute information without waiting for their political overseers to massage the message. Obviously there is some overlap in functions, but the federal process has defeated the very virtue of social media, which is immediacy.

The federal government last year issued a tender for a firm to monitor social media around the clock, including blogs, message boards, YouTube -- anything moving in the digital world. It all sounds a bit paranoid and obsessive-compulsive, more evidence that the speed of modern technology may be driving people silly without a corresponding increase in efficiency or effectiveness.

Hopefully there's an app for that.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 10, 2014 A8

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