A simple question, a blizzard of emails, and a peek inside how Canada’s bureaucracy works

A simple question, a blizzard of emails, and a peek inside how Canada’s bureaucracy works 



APRIL 17, 2012 


OTTAWA — The Citizen asked the National Research Council a simple question back in March: What’s this joint study that you and NASA are doing on falling snow?

The federal department never agreed to an interview. It sent an email instead, with technical details on equipment but without much information on the nature of the project.

It never even explained the study’s topic.

Before sending even that modest response, however, it took a small army of staffers — 11 of them by our count — to decide how to answer, and dozens of emails back and forth to circulate the Citizen’s request, discuss its motivation, develop their response, and “massage” its text.

A simple question, a blizzard of bureaucracy

All this for a question about how snow falls.

NASA, meanwhile, answered everything in a single phone call. It took about 15 minutes.

Now papers released under an access to information request show the Byzantine world of how federal departments respond to even the simplest request for information with second-guessing and internal strategy, but few answers.

First, the study:

NASA wanted to get a better understanding of snowstorms. Conventional radar shows where snow is falling but has trouble measuring the quantity.

So NASA teamed up with Environment Canada, the NRC and several universities to fly through and over falling snow in southern Ontario this winter. It used specialized equipment to analyse falling snow in different weather conditions.

We phoned a NASA scientist who happily described the project. It’s a good story: an offbeat look at the mysteries that winter still holds.

But it’s also a Canadian story, so the Citizen wanted to know more about Canada’s role. Why should Americans get all the credit?

Environment Canada wouldn’t talk because their expert was out of the office. We held the story for a day, and early the next morning we phoned the other federal participant, NRC. It supplied one of the aircraft, loaded with scientific gear.

We asked for an interview. That’s when the media relations machinery kicked into gear.

• First, an analyst labels the article’s expected tone as “positive/informative” and suggests agreeing to an interview.

• But the director general of NRC’s communications and corporate relations branch kills that idea via email: “I am not convinced we need an interview. A few lines on our involvement are fine. Let me see them first.”

• The department emails the Citizen and promises an answer by 1 p.m.

• Senior officials approve release of a drawing showing where W- and X-band radar and other instruments are mounted on a Convair. This is a long way from the hoped-for interview, which would have asked questions along the lines of: Why do you want to study snow?

• The department mulls the wording of its message. For example: That the NRC “has been conducting airborne atmospheric research projects for more than 20 years in collaboration with universities, government, and other scientific organizations,” and that it participated in “NASA’s Global Precipitation Measurement Cold Season Precipitation Experiment (GCPEx) snow study over Ontario, Canada.” Funding came from the Canadian Space Agency.

There’s additional material on wide areas of research activities for the aircraft. A staffer promises to “trim these down a bit and send to the journo.”

• After 2 p.m., and still no interview. A staffer suggests that the Citizen story will be “for laymen.” As such, he suggests this explanatory material: “NRC was to collect and analyse unique ground and airborne in-situ and radar datasets that will be used to characterize the radar signatures of glaciated and mixed-phase clouds.”

• The department shortens its “lines” to say very little. The nine-sentence message now adds up the number of flights, number of instruments, and number of government partners. Curiously, there’s no explanation of what aspect of snow they were studying.

As staff debate two potential written responses, the marketing manager for the NRC’s Institute for Aerospace Research wonders whether they shouldn’t just talk to the reporter. “The story then becomes more about us (and our Canadian partners) rather than NASA.”

• The newly released papers don’t show a response to his suggestion, but no interview is ever granted. The media lines go out, now shortened to seven snow-free sentences and an aircraft drawing, and well after the Citizen’s story is substantially written.

The finished article mentions NRC’s involvement as a courtesy, but can say little beyond that. NASA has talked with enthusiasm about the joy of studying snow and its mysteries. NRC has sent an email describing the number of pieces of equipment on an airplane.

A plaintive little note circulates within NRC the next day: “NRC is mentioned only in the last para (i.e. paragraph of the article), but with no mention of our science contribution.”

That’s all right, a staffer commented, because the newspaper never really wanted information on NRC anyway.

A simple question, a blizzard of emails, and a peek inside how Canada’s bureaucracy works.

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