How to tell the government feels vulnerable about something

Kirsten Smith My Blog 1 Comment

Last Friday I called a federal department for a background briefing on the spending figures in the Public Accounts of Canada.

Source: government of Canada.

Source: government of Canada.

Now, this particular department has been in the news a lot in 2014, mostly in unflattering light. I am working on a fact check to better understand a dollar amount  the opposition used to pillory the government.

I am a researcher. I rarely (read – NEVER) ask for ‘on the record’ interviews. All I want is background information and clarification. The difference is “on the record” interviews, may be quoted in news stories and the officials or spokespeople who made the statements are identified. “Off the record, not for attribution” interviews tend to be more about factual information and interpretation and less about spin or talking points.

It took three days for the one person in the entire department (staff size about 3,000) who understands the Public Accounts to have time to talk to me. Emails with the media relations contact went back and forth, mine were mostly whiny, hers were mostly patient.

Monday, out of the blue, I received a call from a communications person in the Minister’s Office. “Anything I can do to help you get your question answered?”. “How did you know about my question?” was my response. “Just trying to help?”. Yeah…..okay.  In my career I’ve called many a department and I think this is the first time a Minister’s Office called me back unsolicited. Sad thing is, she didn’t really do much to expedite my interview – like find a second person capable of explaining spending numbers to me. They sure have a lot of people in the department/Ministers Office able to tell me services to Canadians are FANTASTIC and not in any way affected by unspent monies. How do they know this? They must have been briefed by the One Departmental Staffer Who Understands The Public Accounts.

Finally we have a date – Wednesday, and a time – 4pm. (Seriously?!? was my response to the media relations officer). Fine, says I. I’m stuck unless I get these numbers explained to me, so 4pm it is.

But, alas, Mother Nature intervened and a snow storm in Ottawa disrupted travel of this very special One Departmental Staffer Who Understands The Public Accounts.

NOT the one departmental official who understands the Public Accounts but a kid in a park on a snowy day in Ottawa.  Source: Ottawa Citizen

NOT the one departmental official who understands the Public Accounts but a kid in a park on a snowy day in Ottawa.
Source: Ottawa Citizen

Personally, I don’t think she should be allowed to travel. Too risky. The Queen and her successor Prince Charles never travel together. If something unspeakable happened to the Queen’s train/plane/automobile the monarchy can carry on. This poor public servant does not even have a successor. She is the Only One!  If she gets hurt, who will prepare all that juicy accountanty stuff for their  section in the Public Accounts?

Finally at long last today, a mere five days after my original request, I got to speak to the One Departmental Staffer Who Understands The Public Accounts. It was a crowded call, with us, and a departmental media relations person (a different person that my contact all week – she was probably too annoyed to get on the call) and two, not one but two, communications staff from the minister’s office. And that is how you know the government feels vulnerable about something. Remember, I’m a deep background kind of fact checker. I’m not a columnist or high profile journalist or even a journalist many people have heard of. I’m the researcher. My media questions have never been that interesting to that many people. Ever.

And, in case you are wondering. Turns out the Public Accounts are not the best source for the numbers I need so I’m back to square one with the Main Estimates  part III and and the 2014 Performance Report. Here’s hoping I won’t have any questions.

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