The civil service’s neutrality is at stake due to PC talking points repeatedly slipping into non-partisan news releases, according to a rebuke from the Manitoba ombudsman.

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The civil service’s neutrality is at stake due to PC talking points repeatedly slipping into non-partisan news releases, according to a rebuke from the Manitoba ombudsman.

"Citizens should not be footing the bill for communication that is partisan or political," reads an ombudsman’s report issued Wednesday, which was obtained by the Free Press.

"It is important that the separation between the non-partisan civil service and the political realm remain intact."

The independent investigator looked into two news releases issued by Communications Services Manitoba, which raised eyebrows for their pro-conservative tone.

A June 2019 news release was entitled "Manitoba Lauds Andrew Scheer’s Pledge to Reduce Interprovincial Trade Barriers," which hailed the former federal Tory leader months ahead of an election.

An August 2020 release decried "misinformation" and "fearmongering of the opposition parties" on child care.

The ombudsman received complaints from the provincial NDP and others, saying those releases amounted to partisan messaging.

An investigation found political staff weren’t pressuring civil servants. Instead, the public service has lax rules around how to vet content for partisan messaging.

An undated nine-page internal document guides bureaucrats working in the public affairs division, and it asks them to respect "the overarching principle that government services should not be used for a political purpose."

That guidance goes on to say: "As it is inappropriate for a governing party to use government-funded communications apparatus to further a political agenda, partisan political language is not appropriate in government releases and must be edited out."

Still, that didn’t stop the Scheer release from going out in June 2019.

It all started when Deborah Young, a political appointee who was the government’s director of communications, sent a draft to the editor of news releases, who is a non-partisan public servant.

The bureaucrat edited the release, and sent it back to Young while noting it’s unusual for the province to praise anyone who isn’t in government.

She flagged that concern to her boss, noting it’s "A little odd in that it’s supportive of an opposition position, but it ties directly into something the premier has been asking for," referring to the issue of clearing internal trade barriers.

The supervisor was not at their desk, and didn’t see that email in the 28 minutes before it was sent out.

Immediately, one journalist asked why the province was issuing a partisan statement.

The ombudsman said Young shouldn’t have asked the bureaucracy to edit and send the Scheer release in the first place, as political staff are forbidden from asking civil servants to undertake activities the public could view as biased.

"This case clearly demonstrates the lack of clarity in roles and responsibilities of government communications staff and political communications staff, and without appropriate structures in place, it paves the way for these lines to be crossed," reads the report.

A senior bureaucrat started an internal probe, but clearly didn’t change things 14 months later, when Young was no longer working with the PCs.

An August 2020 news release decried "fearmongering of the opposition parties" and claimed they weren’t supporting Manitoba families.

"The opposition parties continue to spread misinformation about our government’s position on child care and it is important that we correct the record," reads the release.

The ombudsman found the original draft came from political staff — and the unedited version was even more partisan.

"Civil servants worked with political staff to depoliticize the language and the release that was published was approved by" the bureaucrat supervising the communications department, the ombudsman wrote.

The 2020 incident "raises a perception of lack of neutrality, and we question whether it complied with the spirit of government policy to maintain a non-partisan public service."

Two years after the Scheer news release, Communications Services Manitoba is still drafting a procedure on vetting news releases, and a separate guidance on politically impartial communications. The ombudsman expressed concern there’s still no updated policy as of this month, pointing to clear rules that already exist in other provinces.

Bureaucrats who find a release might be partisan now have to call their supervisor instead of just emailing them, but the ombudsman said there’s still no clear protocol on what to do if the supervisor doesn’t pick up the phone.

NDP MLA Malaya Marcelino said she’s concerned the 2020 incident took place when the government had reviewed the Scheer news release.

"It’s using government-funded resources to play partisan politics, and that’s not the right time or place to do that," Marcelino said.

"It’s very important that we keep public servants neutral; it’s part of keeping public confidence in our government."

The ombudsman recommended the governing party remind its political staff once a year "as to the importance of maintaining an impartial and unbiased civil service."

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca