View From the Hill by Keith Beardsley – A Double Dose! Who Signed Off on the Billion Dollar Boondoggle & What the Heck is a MEP? June 9, 2010

Cornwall ON – Keith Beardsley has been writing up a storm as things are hopping in Ottawa!  Here’s a double dose of his View from the Hill!

With all the clamour over the G8/G20 media centres lake, pond, pool or whatever you want to call it, one thing has been over looked, namely the sign off process.

These items don’t magically just appear, nor are contracts signed without quite a bit of vetting within a department or departments. The question becomes who suggested these items, what was the approval process, and who signed off prior to ministerial sign off.

The government in protecting their political staff from appearing before committees has made it very clear that ministers are now responsible for decisions taken within their departments. Knowing the sign off procedure doesn’t excuse the ministers from wearing this one in public and in Question Period, that’s now their job to do so, but it would be interesting to know how these items got approved.

Planning for conferences of this size is usually done at the bureaucratic level. This involves months of meetings and various proposals are vetted through the system, numerous memos written and over time these event proposals get departmental approval. Ultimately the Deputy Minister is responsible for this part of the process.

Generally the minister’s office will only get involved in the details once they are close to final approval. To use the pond as an example, someone came up with the idea, and a review/vetting process would have taken place. Someone had to approve the initial dollar estimate. Someone had to have seen drawings or sketches of the layout or even a scaled mock up of the exhibit. Within a department, each of these steps would have required several signoffs by various bureaucrats.

Ministers rarely see all the nitty gritty details of an event this size. They have a general idea of what is to take place, but it is doubtful that they had the same exposure to the details and costs as officials did when initially approving them.

In a general sense, there may have been a ministerial staffer overseeing the process and tracking it for their minister, but it is doubtful they would have been involved in all the minute details of an event this size.

If they were that involved, then the question also becomes how much experience did they have with these types of events? As the government rightly pointed out, many ministerial staffers are young and inexperienced. They really are learning on the job. They would have had quite a few meetings with bureaucrats to review the events. Did the department flag any of these proposals as potentially embarrassing to the government?

Lots of questions and of course very few answers, but that is the way things are on Parliament Hill.  In the meantime the government’s “responsible” minister carries the can for this one.

What the Heck is a MEP?

It’s always interesting to watch the press in an uproar over an issue and lately there have been several stories about MEPs. To the uninitiated, a MEP is government jargon for a Message Event Proposal.

If you believe all that you read this is an example of the Harper “thought police” controlling every word that its ministers and officials utter in public about the government.

Diplomats and bureaucrats whine that the government insists on knowing what they are going to say in a speech BEFORE they give it. Seems to me that makes far more sense than finding out after they gave the speech!

Can you imagine the audacity of a government, any government, to expect that you say something that reflects the government’s position? Stop for a moment and think about this. If Bill Gates sent a Vice-President, or a regional manager out to give a speech, would they be expected to toe the line and give a speech that reflected what Bill Gates wanted them to say about Microsoft or would they be allowed to run off at the mouth with their own opinions?  I think the answer is pretty obvious. Message control wasn’t invented by the Harper government it is practiced world wide by governments and corporations of every size.

Departments are like large ocean liners, they are very slow to respond and change direction. It’s been my experience than when a new government comes in, they very often keep producing speeches that reflect the views of the previous government and they can be very slow to adapt to the new realities and new policy directions that they now have to deal with.

A MEP helps political staff and bureaucrats understand why they are doing the event and what they hope to achieve, and what messages they want to get across.  This gives political staff a tool to evaluate the speech the department has written for their minister and they have to evaluate the location, backdrops etc. I have seen a lot of departmental speeches in my day and while there are some very good departmental speech writers out there, most speeches would put you to sleep. I was fortunate as a ministerial Chief of Staff to have excellent writers who could take the ministers message and write a speech that not only got the message out, but which reflected his speaking style. This is not always the case and quite often political staff have to rewrite a departmental speech which is a very time consuming and wasteful practice. The MEP helps everyone to stay focused on what do they want to say, why, and what they hope to achieve.

As for staff wanting to control backdrops behind the speaker, why not? This is the age of instant communications, camera phones and video phones. Do any of you remember those infamous election pictures of Gilles Duceppe taken while he was wearing a protective hair net? Youtube and other sites are a reality that ever speaker has to deal with and there is nothing wrong with trying to insure that your minister appears in the best way possible.

This is the communication age, a time of instant communication that can make or break a story, almost before the person has finished speaking, is it any wonder that MEPs exist?

Keith Beardsley is a senior strategist for True North Public Affairs in Ottawa, as well as a blogger and political analyst. He can often be found running or cycling on his favorite bike trails.

1 Comment

  1. “Who signed off?” Try a fake minister using a fake signature.

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