Another fine snow job from ‘open’ government

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OTTAWA -- Canadians love to talk about the weather.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/04/2012 (3764 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OTTAWA — Canadians love to talk about the weather.

The federal government, however, doesn’t share the gift of the weather gab.

Tom Spears, a science reporter with the Ottawa Citizen, was doing some web-browsing in March when he came across a citation on the NASA website about a joint project with Canada’s National Research Council to study falling snow.

It piqued his interest, so he contacted a scientist from NASA, and in about 15 minutes knew exactly what they were doing.

They wanted to figure out if there was a better way to determine how much snow is falling. We’re apparently good at figuring out where it’s snowing but not so good at determining from radar how much snow is going to come from a particular storm.

But Spears does write for a Canadian audience, so he contacted the Canadian government to get its input.

While NASA’s scientist was only too happy to dish directly, all the NRC provided was seven meaningless sentences that don’t even mention snow. Oh, and a drawing of an aircraft. It took almost an entire day for even that to be delivered.

Spears wrote his story, but decided to file an access-to-information request to find out exactly what went on to get those seven lines. In return, he got 50 pages of emails that flew back and forth between at least 11 staffers trying to figure out how to answer the request.

So to review — NASA let one scientist freely speak for 15 minutes to give an interesting story to foreign media. Canada’s NRC used 11 staffers and who knows how much time to deny an interview and provide meaningless bunk about a good news story to a Canadian reporter.

Efficiency and openness apparently be damned.

Given that almost every Canadian complains with a vengeance when weather predictions on snowfall are wrong, a story about a study trying to figure out the issue better would certainly have been positive news for the government.

But in the end, NASA got almost all the credit and Canadians were none the wiser about how their own tax dollars and tax-funded scientists were involved.

Spears’ experience is par for the course. Getting an interview with a federal expert who could explain certain facets of government programs — be they good or bad stories for the government — is pretty much a no-go zone anymore. Meaningless media lines are the everyday occurrence.

Some people at the NRC apparently realized this could be a good piece for the agency.

The first person to analyze Spears’ request suggested it was a positive story and the interview should be granted. But that idea was kiboshed by the head of NRC’s communications branch. Later, the marketing manager for the NRC’s Institute for Aerospace Research said perhaps they should do the interview after all, since the story would be more about the NRC and other Canadian partners (Environment Canada was also involved) and less about NASA.

No response to that suggestion was included in the access-to-information response. Although there was one line complaining NRC was only mentioned at the end of the story and there was no mention of the NRC’s scientific contribution.

Hmmm, how on earth could that have happened when the NRC was so co-operative and forthcoming with information?

It’s almost as if the government seems to forget they are working for the people and the information belongs to Canadians, not the government. What a novel idea it would be for a government to view everything it does in that context.

It is somewhat ironic that this week Treasury Board President Tony Clement was attending an international conference on open government when he was forced to answer questions about why the government isn’t being open about why civil servants are being laid off and what agencies and programs are being cut.

Clement hid behind union and parliamentary rules to explain why much of the information won’t be available until the spring of 2013.

Maybe someone down at that open government conference can give Clement a dictionary to define what open actually means and he can share his new-found knowledge with the rest of the government.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

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