How big is the British Columbia government’s information bureaucracy?
According to theBreaker’s analysis, there were 547 people employed earlier this year in Government Communications and Public Engagement (GCPE) and the Corporate Information and Records Management Office (CIRMO).
GCPE is part of the Advanced Education Ministry and handles public relations and crisis communications for each ministry, as well as the central government’s advertising campaigns. It spent $37.3 million for the fiscal year ended March 31, 2016. The BC Liberals regularly shuttled political staff back and forth into GCPE, to ensure political priorities were met. Newly minted BC Liberal opposition chief of staff Nick Koolsbergen and his deputy, Jessica Wolford, both held senior positions inside GCPE.
CIRMO is part of the Finance Ministry and includes Information Access Operations (IAO), the government’s freedom of information and privacy office. Several GCPE staffers also had roles interfacing with IAO. It spent $15.3 million last year. This year’s budget calls for $20.24 million.
The Public Service Agency, the government’s human resources department, released lists of staff for each department and their job descriptions after FOI requests from theBreaker. See the documents below.
At the end of January this year, there were 233 people employed in CIRMO, which also counts Privacy, Compliance and Training, Strategic Policy and Projects, Government Records Service, and Information Management Act Implementation.
Over in GCPE, there were 314 staffers. That department includes Corporate Priorities and Communications Operations, Strategic Communications Services and GDX: Government Digital Experience Division. Some 61 of GCPE’s staffers are also connected to CIRMO. GCPE assigned 141 workers to ministry communications offices before the election, almost double the number of people working at Postmedia’s Vancouver Sun and Province, B.C.’s largest private sector newsroom.
UPDATE: A Freedom of Information release to theBreaker — dated July 6, but not delivered until July 17 — includes briefing documents for Linda Reid. The ex-Speaker became Advanced Education minister in Clark’s short-lived, post-election cabinet. Bureaucrats told Reid that government spent “approximately $16 million in fiscal 2016-17” on advertising. The government originally planned to spend around $8.5 million.
Reid’s predecessor, Andrew Wilkinson, was fond of telling reporters before and during the election that a substantial amount was earmarked for advertising about the opioid public health emergency. The briefing note to Reid says that only $1.88 million was spent on the so-called “overdose information campaign.” Almost as much was spent claiming the pre-election budget was balanced ($1.87 million). Other big ticket campaigns included the B.C. HOME Partnership ($2.5 million), “B.C. Job Makers” ($1.5 million), “Climate Leadership” ($1.5 million), and “K-12 Curriculum Change” ($773,000).
Does government advertising work? The B.C. HOME subprime lending scheme is falling far short of expectations, while B.C. is on pace for more overdose deaths in 2017 than the 967 recorded last year.
Government does have a responsibility to keep the public informed about the vital services for which it pays and relies upon; its bigger responsibility, though, is to first deliver those programs efficiently and effectively. It must also sort, manage and store terabytes of information that it generates. But government functions more like a corporation these days, so it also spends heavily to disseminate information favourable to the ruling party and it calls upon staff and contractors who are friends of the party to help conceive and execute those campaigns. It censors information that it decides the public doesn’t have a right to see. The ruling party uses its taxpayer-funded media monitoring functions while in constant fear of embarrassment during this modern, perpetual campaign era.
In 1999, the fiery Liberal opposition critic Christy Clark blasted NDP Finance Minister Joy MacPhail for spending $700,000 on an ad campaign. Fast-forward to 2017, and she was running for a second term as premier after spending more than $15 million on the Our Opportunity Is Here ad campaign. Launched in November 2015, it was strategically designed to position the Clark Liberals for re-election on May 9. Instead, the party lost six seats, including four members of cabinet, and its majority. On June 29 Clark resigned after losing a the confidence vote.
The Green-supported NDP minority government will, no doubt, change the politically installed department heads.
In GCPE, it is longtime Clark friend and Deputy Minister John Paul Fraser, the son of conflict of interest commissioner and Liberal donor Paul Fraser. CIRMO is overseen day-to-day by assistant deputy minister David Curtis and Associate Deputy Minister Cheryl Wenezenki-Yolland. Ultimately, Deputy Finance Minister Athana Mentzelopoulos calls the shots. Mentzelopoulos was Clark’s bridesmaid and is, arguably, her closest political confidante. It was her blown call to issue a news release that falsely claimed the RCMP was investigating a data breach in the Ministry of Health in 2012. Mentzelopoulos was Fraser’s predecessor atop GCPE.
In opposition, the “GreeNDP” tabled numerous democratic reform private members’ bills — all rejected by the Liberals — that were aimed at increasing transparency and reducing government advertising waste. Will they pick-up where they left off and fulfil promises? Or be seduced by the power to control information?
With a new government coming July 18, theBreaker will be watching very closely and asking very tough questions during the first 100 days and beyond.
Certainly, Clark will have no credibility as opposition leader after compiling such a shoddy record of spending waste and mishandling of the public’s information. Premier John Horgan has the ability to shrink and transform the government’s bloated information censorship and propaganda bureaucracies. But does he have the will?
Only time will tell.