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Feds’ ‘propaganda’ videos reflect ‘manic obsession with image management,’ undermine public service independence: experts

Public service experts and critics on the political right and left are calling for reforms to federal government communication and advertising policies.

The videos public servants shot of Employment and Social Development Minister Pierre Poilievre glad-handing constituents and explaining Conservative tax breaks are “propaganda” that show the government’s “manic obsession with image management,” experts say, and they’re undermining the public service’s independence.

Public service experts and critics on the political right and left are calling for reforms to federal government communication and advertising policies after The Globe and Mail’s Bill Curry reported May 15 that Mr. Poilievre (Nepean-Carleton, Ont.) had three public servants work overtime on a Sunday to film him talking to parents at a consignment sale in his riding about the Conservatives’ family tax benefits. Some are also calling for senior bureaucrats to intervene.

The government has already been criticized for its use of public funds for what many see as partisan advertising, and for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 24/Seven video series.

University of Ottawa research professor Ralph Heintzman—a former assistant secretary at the Treasury Board who wrote a paper for think-tank Canada 2020 last year about the politicization of the public service—said Mr. Poilievre’s videos provide “additional and very powerful evidence” that a Charter of the Public Service setting clear boundaries and regulating government communications is  “not only necessary but urgent.”

“They just prove the abysmal situation we’re now in and the urgency for measures to restore some degree of integrity and credibility to the public service,” he said of the videos, calling them “clearly partisan political propaganda” that contravene the Treasury Board’s basic rules.

The Treasury Board’s Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector states that public servants should carry out their duties “in a non-partisan and impartial manner,” and that “chief executives are responsible for ensuring the non-partisan provision of programs and services by their organizations.”

Mr. Heintzman told The Hill Times that Employment and Social Development deputy minister Ian Shugart shouldn’t have allowed public servants and resources to be used in a partisan way, and he was critical of Privy Council Clerk Janice Charette and Treasury Board Secretary Yaprak Baltacioglu “for allowing this kind of flouting of the general principles and values of public service to go on and to demoralize the public service.”

Opposition MPs—including Liberal David McGuinty (Ottawa South, Ont.) whose private member’s bill would create an independent board to review government advertising and approve it as non-partisan—and NDP MP and Treasury Board critic Mathieu Ravignat (Pontiac, Que.) have called on Ms. Charette to explain why taxpayer money was used to create the “vanity videos.”

“If there’s any time in which the public service should be leaning over backward to emphasize its non-partisan character, it’s at this time,” Mr. Heintzman said, with a federal election five months away.

“If the clerk gave a clear signal that in a pre-electoral period she wants it to be clear to all the political parties that this is a non-partisan, professional public service that can serve any and all parties in an equally even-handed manner, she could make that very clear to her deputies and her deputies would know what to do.”

Mr. Heintzman said public servants should refuse to perform partisan tasks; while he admitted that’s difficult for those “down the food chain,” it “should be a piece of cake” for a deputy minister to intervene.

The major public sector unions have also criticized the videos as using public resources for partisan purposes.

Martin Ranger, legal counsel for the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, said he doesn’t know of any complaints from members being asked to perform partisan work.

The procedure, he told The Hill Times, if there were such a complaint, would be to “obey now and grieve later”: the union would meet with the member to review the matter and discuss whether it’s worth filing a complaint under the under Public Servant Disclosure Protection Act to the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner.

A spokesperson for that office could not say, due to confidentiality provisions, whether any such complaints had been registered.

The Employment and Social Development department launched a five-member “creative production team” in 2008 that has a $50,000 annual budget, in addition to salaries, to produce video and photography.

The department said it followed government policies in making the video, pointing to Treasury Board communications policy that “institutions must maintain a capacity for innovation and stay current with developments in communications practice and technology,” and that ministers are the “principal spokespersons” to explain government policies, priorities and decisions.

The government’s communications policy, revised in 2006, states that “Public service managers and employees are expected to provide information services in a non-partisan fashion consistent with the principles of parliamentary democracy and ministerial responsibility.”

Mr. Poilievre defended the videos in question period May 15 saying that he’s proud to work seven days per week and that the opposition parties object because they don’t support the tax cuts.

“We will continue to deliver these benefits and I will work aggressively to communicate the benefits that families deserve and are entitled to receive,” he told the House.

Josh Greenberg, director of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication, said the argument that the videos fulfill the responsibility to inform the public is “unpersuasive.”

“Given the proximity to the election, the clearly partisan tone of the videos, and the fact that public servants were paid overtime on a weekend to produce them, I would argue they clearly violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the rules and limits circumscribing legitimate communication between the government and public,” he said in an emailed response to questions from The Hill Times.

The videos don’t provide information in a non-partisan fashion, he said, and “explicitly undermine and erode” the public service’s impartiality and integrity.

“In many ways, the videos are yet another example of the current government’s persistent efforts to blur the boundaries between the neutral operations of the bureaucracy with its own partisan priorities,” he said.

Prof. Greenberg said the videos fit into the government’s efforts, already seen with the 24 Seven videos, to bypass the press gallery and traditional media and shape public opinion by speaking directly to Canadians, even if it’s not reaching very many of them.

When The Globe reported the story, Mr. Poilievre’s videos had about 300 views each; by press time on May 21, one had about 5,700, the other almost 7,500.

“The videos are consistent with the government’s manic obsession with image management, but also its commitment to transforming itself into a media organization,” Prof. Greenberg said.

The government’s communication policy needs modernizing to establish clear rules and roles for public servants, he said.

Aaron Wudrick, federal director of advocacy group the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, also said he didn’t accept the minister’s response that he’s informing Canadians about government policy.

“He’s not really informing them about the policies when he does these videos. He’s talking about the values behind them, the principles behind them,” Mr. Wudrick said in an interview.

“He’s panning the entire government record from 2006. This is not informational stuff—this is spin, this is propaganda. This is not something the taxpayer should be on the hook for.”

The CTF has already been critical of the advertising spending and called for a law similar to Ontario’s to govern partisan government advertising. The same individual or body evaluating ads could examine activities like the Poilievre videos, Mr. Wudrick said.

David Coletto, the CEO of polling firm Abacus, said the videos show a blurring of lines between electioneering and the public service.

“I don’t think you can deny that these videos that he’s producing are promotional and meant to increase awareness about what the government’s doing but also to have people view it positively,” he said in an interview.

But he’s not convinced the backlash in political Ottawa over the ads and videos will matter to average voters, or whether the negative attention would outweigh the ads’ benefit of promoting the tax breaks to voters.

“If you don’t pay a lot of attention to politics, you probably don’t know this is happening,” he said.

His research on the ads shows most people view them as information like any other government ad, he said.

mburgess@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times


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Feds’ ‘propaganda’ videos reflect ‘manic obsession with image management,’ undermine public service independence: experts

Public service experts and critics on the political right and left are calling for reforms to federal government communication and advertising policies.

The videos public servants shot of Employment and Social Development Minister Pierre Poilievre glad-handing constituents and explaining Conservative tax breaks are “propaganda” that show the government’s “manic obsession with image management,” experts say, and they’re undermining the public service’s independence.

Public service experts and critics on the political right and left are calling for reforms to federal government communication and advertising policies after The Globe and Mail’s Bill Curry reported May 15 that Mr. Poilievre (Nepean-Carleton, Ont.) had three public servants work overtime on a Sunday to film him talking to parents at a consignment sale in his riding about the Conservatives’ family tax benefits. Some are also calling for senior bureaucrats to intervene.

The government has already been criticized for its use of public funds for what many see as partisan advertising, and for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 24/Seven video series.

University of Ottawa research professor Ralph Heintzman—a former assistant secretary at the Treasury Board who wrote a paper for think-tank Canada 2020 last year about the politicization of the public service—said Mr. Poilievre’s videos provide “additional and very powerful evidence” that a Charter of the Public Service setting clear boundaries and regulating government communications is  “not only necessary but urgent.”

“They just prove the abysmal situation we’re now in and the urgency for measures to restore some degree of integrity and credibility to the public service,” he said of the videos, calling them “clearly partisan political propaganda” that contravene the Treasury Board’s basic rules.

The Treasury Board’s Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector states that public servants should carry out their duties “in a non-partisan and impartial manner,” and that “chief executives are responsible for ensuring the non-partisan provision of programs and services by their organizations.”

Mr. Heintzman told The Hill Times that Employment and Social Development deputy minister Ian Shugart shouldn’t have allowed public servants and resources to be used in a partisan way, and he was critical of Privy Council Clerk Janice Charette and Treasury Board Secretary Yaprak Baltacioglu “for allowing this kind of flouting of the general principles and values of public service to go on and to demoralize the public service.”

Opposition MPs—including Liberal David McGuinty (Ottawa South, Ont.) whose private member’s bill would create an independent board to review government advertising and approve it as non-partisan—and NDP MP and Treasury Board critic Mathieu Ravignat (Pontiac, Que.) have called on Ms. Charette to explain why taxpayer money was used to create the “vanity videos.”

“If there’s any time in which the public service should be leaning over backward to emphasize its non-partisan character, it’s at this time,” Mr. Heintzman said, with a federal election five months away.

“If the clerk gave a clear signal that in a pre-electoral period she wants it to be clear to all the political parties that this is a non-partisan, professional public service that can serve any and all parties in an equally even-handed manner, she could make that very clear to her deputies and her deputies would know what to do.”

Mr. Heintzman said public servants should refuse to perform partisan tasks; while he admitted that’s difficult for those “down the food chain,” it “should be a piece of cake” for a deputy minister to intervene.

The major public sector unions have also criticized the videos as using public resources for partisan purposes.

Martin Ranger, legal counsel for the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, said he doesn’t know of any complaints from members being asked to perform partisan work.

The procedure, he told The Hill Times, if there were such a complaint, would be to “obey now and grieve later”: the union would meet with the member to review the matter and discuss whether it’s worth filing a complaint under the under Public Servant Disclosure Protection Act to the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner.

A spokesperson for that office could not say, due to confidentiality provisions, whether any such complaints had been registered.

The Employment and Social Development department launched a five-member “creative production team” in 2008 that has a $50,000 annual budget, in addition to salaries, to produce video and photography.

The department said it followed government policies in making the video, pointing to Treasury Board communications policy that “institutions must maintain a capacity for innovation and stay current with developments in communications practice and technology,” and that ministers are the “principal spokespersons” to explain government policies, priorities and decisions.

The government’s communications policy, revised in 2006, states that “Public service managers and employees are expected to provide information services in a non-partisan fashion consistent with the principles of parliamentary democracy and ministerial responsibility.”

Mr. Poilievre defended the videos in question period May 15 saying that he’s proud to work seven days per week and that the opposition parties object because they don’t support the tax cuts.

“We will continue to deliver these benefits and I will work aggressively to communicate the benefits that families deserve and are entitled to receive,” he told the House.

Josh Greenberg, director of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication, said the argument that the videos fulfill the responsibility to inform the public is “unpersuasive.”

“Given the proximity to the election, the clearly partisan tone of the videos, and the fact that public servants were paid overtime on a weekend to produce them, I would argue they clearly violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the rules and limits circumscribing legitimate communication between the government and public,” he said in an emailed response to questions from The Hill Times.

The videos don’t provide information in a non-partisan fashion, he said, and “explicitly undermine and erode” the public service’s impartiality and integrity.

“In many ways, the videos are yet another example of the current government’s persistent efforts to blur the boundaries between the neutral operations of the bureaucracy with its own partisan priorities,” he said.

Prof. Greenberg said the videos fit into the government’s efforts, already seen with the 24 Seven videos, to bypass the press gallery and traditional media and shape public opinion by speaking directly to Canadians, even if it’s not reaching very many of them.

When The Globe reported the story, Mr. Poilievre’s videos had about 300 views each; by press time on May 21, one had about 5,700, the other almost 7,500.

“The videos are consistent with the government’s manic obsession with image management, but also its commitment to transforming itself into a media organization,” Prof. Greenberg said.

The government’s communication policy needs modernizing to establish clear rules and roles for public servants, he said.

Aaron Wudrick, federal director of advocacy group the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, also said he didn’t accept the minister’s response that he’s informing Canadians about government policy.

“He’s not really informing them about the policies when he does these videos. He’s talking about the values behind them, the principles behind them,” Mr. Wudrick said in an interview.

“He’s panning the entire government record from 2006. This is not informational stuff—this is spin, this is propaganda. This is not something the taxpayer should be on the hook for.”

The CTF has already been critical of the advertising spending and called for a law similar to Ontario’s to govern partisan government advertising. The same individual or body evaluating ads could examine activities like the Poilievre videos, Mr. Wudrick said.

David Coletto, the CEO of polling firm Abacus, said the videos show a blurring of lines between electioneering and the public service.

“I don’t think you can deny that these videos that he’s producing are promotional and meant to increase awareness about what the government’s doing but also to have people view it positively,” he said in an interview.

But he’s not convinced the backlash in political Ottawa over the ads and videos will matter to average voters, or whether the negative attention would outweigh the ads’ benefit of promoting the tax breaks to voters.

“If you don’t pay a lot of attention to politics, you probably don’t know this is happening,” he said.

His research on the ads shows most people view them as information like any other government ad, he said.

mburgess@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

  
Parliamentary Calendar
Friday, May 29, 2015
HILL LIFE & PEOPLE SLIDESHOWS
Canadian talent centre stage at SOCAN Hill reception May 19, 2015

The Hill Times photograph by Cynthia Münster
The crowd dancing and singing along to Alex Nevsky's performance, in the Aboriginal Peoples Committee room.
The Hill Times photograph by Cynthia Münster
Liberal MP Stéphane Dion, SOCAN CEO Eric Baptiste, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, President of the SOCAN Board of Directors Stan Meissner, and SOCAN Chief Quebec Affairs Officer Geneviève Côté, pictured May 12 at the event.
The Hill Times photograph by Cynthia Münster
Conservative MP Gord Brown, chair of the House Canadian Heritage Committee.
The Hill Times photograph by Cynthia Münster
NDP MPs Rathika Sitsabaiesan and Pierre Nantel take a selfie during the concert.
The Hill Times photograph by Cynthia Münster
Canadian performing artist Sarah Slean.
The Hill Times photograph by Cynthia Münster
DFATD Director General Marcel Lebleu, Environics Communications' Louis-Charles Roy, Alex Nevsky, and ESDC's Philippe Bernier-Arcand.
The Hill Times photograph by Cynthia Münster
Back Row: Stéphane Dion, Sarah Slean, Mr. Brown, Eric Baptiste, Pierre Nantel, Stan Meissner, James Cowan. Front Row: Marc Ouellette, Geneviève Côté, Alex Nevsky, Laurence Lafond-Beaulne, and Gabriel Gratton.
The Hill Times photograph by Cynthia Münster
Gabriel Gratton, Laurence Lafond-Beaulne, and Alex Nevsky performing.
The Hill Times photograph by Cynthia Münster
Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner, SOCAN's Geneviève Côté, and Liberal MP Mark Eyking.
The Hill Times photograph by Cynthia Münster
Sarah Slean and NDP MP Tyrone Benskin.
The Hill Times photograph by Cynthia Münster
Conservative MP Terrence Young, SOCAN's Stan Meissner, and Eric Baptiste.
The Hill Times photograph by Cynthia Münster
Tom Mulcair's current, and former chiefs of staff Alain Gaul and Raoul Gébert, with SOCAN's Eric Baptiste.
The Hill Times photograph by Cynthia Münster
Sen. Cowan, Sarah Slean, and Stan Meissner.
The Hill Times photograph by Cynthia Münster
Environics Communications' Alex Bushell, with NDP MPs Carol Hughes and Djaouida Sellah.
The Hill Times photograph by Cynthia Münster
Alex Nevsky and Environics Communications' Greg MacEachern.

MICHAEL DE ADDER'S TAKE