How the federal government fell down during the earthquake

Remember the earthquake in the Ottawa area last June? Remember how the earthquakes website run by Natural Resources Canada promptly imploded when everyone tried to get information on the quake at once? I mentioned that I sent a stiff letter to the Minister of Natural Resources to complain about it. I did get a reply dated July 28 from the assistant deputy minister responsible, who assured me that steps were being taken to address the issue, which is precisely the sort of answer I expected (being, as you know, familiar with the ways of ministerial correspondence).

I was far from the only one to notice the website issue: a Canadian Press story in August, using documents obtained under an ATIP request, outlined what the hell happened to the server. But according to Tom Spears’s article in yesterday’s Ottawa Citizen, the problems went beyond insufficient website bandwidth. Not only were the website and phone lines down, but the chain of command effectively prevented anyone with any expertise from talking for hours. The comedy of errors surrounding a conference call should be all too familiar to anyone who works with words for the federal government.

At 4:15 p.m., the department decided to hold a conference call — hopefully within the hour — to link its earthquake experts with all the reporters at once. Seismologists were standing ready in English and French.
But there was a hitch: a tangled approval process for notifying the media about the conference call. Even though the announcement was 75 words long (not including phone numbers), it needed:
• Approval in principle from an assistant deputy minister — but still subject to approval of “media lines,” a sort of script outlining the department’s central message.
• Approval from the office of minister Christian Paradis.
• Translating the announcement of the conference call.
• Approving the translation.
• Approval from the Privy Council Office.
• Posting the announcement on the Natural Resources website — and immediately pulling it off again, because media lines were not yet approved by the assistant deputy minister.
• Approving the media lines.
• Last-minute copy editing, literally. One minute before the call, someone felt the French copy should list the time as 18 h, not 18h00.
• Finally, at 6:24 p.m., sending out the conference call invitation on a commercial wire service — 24 minutes after the call began.

A grand total of three reporters, says Spears, attended the call.

The department says it’s addressed the issues, but I suspect they mean the infrastructure, not the approvals process. That’s something likely to survive any natural disaster. Cockroaches, Cheez Whiz, and the federal government’s approvals process.