A flashy government website plastered with photos of the prime minister touting the work of the “Harper government” doesn’t meet federal rules, according to documents obtained by The Canadian Press.
Officials advised that the Economic Action Plan website didn’t merit an exemption from the rules, but it was given the green light anyway by Treasury Board President Vic Toews. He approved the site on the basis that the rules — which only took force on Dec. 31, 2008 — were to be changed at some future date.
At issue is something called “Common Look and Feel” standards for government online information and services to the public — standards developed so that federal websites are credible, technically accessible, uniform and non-partisan.
The Economic Action Plan website, touting the Conservative’s big-spending budget of January 2009, was criticized from the outset for its highly partisan appearance.
Despite earlier vehement denials by the Prime Minister’s Office, the nature of the exercise was explained this week as “strategic brand building” by Harper’s freshly departed former chief of staff.
“Canada’s Economic Action Plan, strategic brand building,” Guy Giorno wrote on social networking site in response to a newspaper columnist who’d suggested his tenure was all tactics, no strategy.
Documents obtained under Access to Information show the Privy Council Office — the bureaucratic arm that serves the Prime Minister’s Office — spent four months in 2009 trying to convince Treasury Board to give it numerous exemptions to the new rules. But it never succeeded in convincing the gatekeepers of the online standards of its case.
In September 2009, Treasury Board bureaucrats drafted a letter from Toews formally rejecting the exemption request for the Economic Action Plan site. Rejection, internal documents note, was the “recommended” course of action.
But Toews then signed a letter on Oct. 20, 2009, that approved the exemptions “on the basis that resources should not be spent on complying with layout and design requirements that will be changing in the near future.”
Those requirements still have not been altered and the Economic Action Plan website remains in place. The Treasury Board says some changes will be coming early this year.
Sara MacIntyre, a spokeswoman in the PMO, said Wednesday that the website needed the exemption for its use of interactive technology, such as a Google Maps application showing the location of stimulus projects.
“By and large, the Economic Action Plan website is compliant with the Common Look and Feel but there was an exemption sought and received for the technological exemptions — such as searching (projects) by location,” she said.
“Those are new technologies.”
But the exemptions sought by PCO covered everything from page banners to the language used in the text and a different red Maple Leaf than the standard government of Canada issue.
The Economic Action Plan (EAP) website was up and running by mid-March 2009. Documents show that by mid-May, the Privy Council Office was ordering every government website to link to the site.
Only on June 1, 2009, did PCO begin preliminary discussions with Treasury Board about exemptions to the Common Look and Feel policy.
The initial proposed rationale for an exemption: “The EAP site features a more modern layout and design that is better suited to conveying the EAP information than the layout and design required by the CLF (official government policy).”
PCO also suggested that since the EAP site wasn’t a government institution or department, the rules “would not apply.”
The team leader of the Common Look and Feel program, Pirthipal Singh, wrote his colleagues that “as it stands, the rationale is not very good (and I am not sure if it can be strengthened).”
The documents show PCO officials offering up various, draft rationales in an effort to find a convincing case for an exemption.
“The government is developing a new brand of website that must be visually consistent with all information produced and associated with the EAP website,” offered one PCO memo.
The top bullet under the heading Key Points: “Shows Canadians their government is committed to action by creating a (sic) interactive website.”
Further revisions to the rationale for an exemption were made, and eventually the government struck on what it thought was a winning formula.
By counting individual stimulus projects that were administered through institutions that did not have to comply to the Common Look and Feel policy — including such loosely defined “initiatives” as “moving forward with Public Private Partnerships” — the government was able to claim that “32.1 per cent of all initiatives” were not under the policy and therefore the EAP site needn’t apply, either.
The Liberals say the Conservatives are clearly flouting the rules.
“He’s Stephen do-as-I-say Harper, break-all-the-rules Harper,” said Liberal critic Siobhan Coady.
Alluding to Harper’s summertime Arctic quip about making rules, Coady said “the rules don’t apply to him or his government.”
Virtually all the email reaction to the PCO changes from civil servants overseeing the policy is blacked out. But one email from Chuck Henry, the chief technology officer of Canada, opens with a single word — “Sigh,” — before the redaction begins.
By July 7, 2009, a final exemption application had been hammered out and sent to Singh by PCO.
Coincidentally, that same week another branch of PCO complained to Singh about a particular non-compliant Health Canada website: “Why did depts work day and night to meet the (Dec. 31, 2008) deadline if there were loopholes to compliance?” asked PCO’s Ian McKenna.
“There are no loopholes,” Singh responded.
A senior Treasury Board manager responded to the PCO exemption request in a blacked-out email on July 14, 2009. At that point, the paper trail went cold for 10 weeks.
On Sept. 23, 2009, — after a week of media reports on the partisan appearance of the EAP website — Finance Minister Jim Flaherty formally wrote Toews requesting an exemption from the Common Look and Feel standards. The EAP site was nominally under Flaherty’s control at the Finance Department, although it was handled almost exclusively by the PCO.
The documents show Flaherty’s request for an exemption was an urgent priority. Williams Stairs — Harper’s political director of issues management at the time — and other top PMO officials were copied on the exchange.
The heavily redacted documents suggest there was still much to discuss, notwithstanding the weeks of negotiation and draft exemption proposals between PCO and Treasury Board.
“It should be noted there are other compliance issues related to other Treasury Board policy areas, which do not form part of this exemption request,” says one internal email that survived the blackout.
The repeated use of the “Harper government” on the site appears to have been an issue.
“The Federal Identity Program policy requires the clear identification of government programs, services, assets and activities using the official symbol of the Government of Canada,” said the Treasury Board email. “The policy also requires Treasury Board approval for the use of any special symbol or logo such as the EAP logo.
“Some of the risks demonstrated in not conforming to this policy have been demonstrated in the uncertainty portrayed in the media over the authorship and ownership of the EAP website and other communications and advertising activities.”
A briefing note to Toews on Flaherty’s exemption request runs four full pages, all entirely redacted.
But a very pithy summary survived in one of Singh’s emails: “The briefing note provides two options and corresponding letters: Grant the exemption; Not
grant the exemption. The latter is recommended.”
An unsigned, undated letter to Flaherty, over Toews’ name, states that the exemption request is “denied.”
The draft letter states that the PCO rationale provided for the exemption could be applied to “a number of other (government) websites” which would lead others to make applications using the same arguments.
“The result could be a weakening of one of the (policy) objectives of ensuring trust and confidence in (government) websites through the consistent applications of appearance and navigation.”