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Stonewalled by Community Services

10 questions, 20 bureaucrats, 15 days, two paragraphs of platitudes

by Robert Devet

In 2013 Community Services announced major changes to how it serves people with disabilities. Now the department refuses to answer questions on its progress. Photo Robert Devet
In 2013 Community Services announced major changes to how it serves people with disabilities. Now the department refuses to answer questions on its progress. Photo Robert Devet

KJIPUKTUK (HALIFAX) – The Department of Community Services responds to factual questions about its transformation of services for people with disabilities with nothing but platitudes.

Information obtained through a Freedom of Information Request reveals just how much work it is to write such a non-answer.

In September of 2013, the NDP government made an announcement that many people living with disabilities had been hoping for. It was huge. Large institutions would be phased out, and care and funding would become more tailored to individuals. The Department also promised to be more open and inclusive in its planning and policy making.

Sometime after the announcement was made things slowed down. Or that's the way it seems to a lot of people I talked to over the last two years.

I have written quite a bit about Community Services' handling of disability issues, and I felt it was time for a follow-up. So I did what I always do, I asked the communication people at the department.

“Work is underway, but the program has evolved over decades and the transforming it (sic) will take several years,” wrote Lori Errington, spokesperson for the department.

“We make every effort to keep our staff, the sector and stakeholders informed of progress, There have been many meetings and presentations and they will continue,” Errington writes.

Fine answer. Except, it's not what I asked.

I asked about specific commitments the department had made about timing, and how it would consult with the people most affected.

My questions were factual and straightforward. They all pertained to commitments made in 2013.

I asked when a particular document was posted on the department's website. Who was managing the transition. When referrals to large institutions would stop.

I asked when the waiting list for community based living would stop growing. And if it was true that what started out as a five-year implementation was now considered a ten-year effort.

I asked when the community advisory groups promised in 2013 would be put in place. I asked how often the department had consulted with stakeholders over the last 15 months.

It took 15 days, and several assurances that a response was forthcoming, for the non-answer to arrive.

I felt bad when that email arrived. Many of our readers have a huge personal stake in the transition. The questions seemed reasonable. Why not just answer the questions?

Could it be that the real answers would be embarrassing?

Rather than dropping it, I decided to submit a Freedom of Information request.

I requested emails, letters, memos, anything that pertained to my questions and the department's response.

This is what I learned.

It took 86 printed pages of internal email exchanges to come up with that three-paragraph response.

At least 30 email chains went back and forth between some 20 civil servants, as best as I can determine. Communications Nova Scotia and at one time even the Premier's Office got involved.

“Hours of staff time went into this request,” Errington confirms in one email.

Many emails focus on justifying why the questions should be ignored. It's too much work, especially since the department doesn't like what I write.

“Following some issues with the accuracy of his reporting, our usual practice is to provide him with written statements,” Errington writes in an internal email.

“Things have become problematic, in that the demands for information are growing and are involving a lot of staff and communication time, but our efforts are not resulting in any form of balanced reporting,” Errington writes in an email that refers to me as an activist reporter.

In a final follow-up I asked Errington what it is the department doesn't like about my reporting.

I asked whether it is appropriate for civil servants to have protocols for reporters they deem biased, suggesting that could be a dangerous practice in a democracy. I really felt I had to ask that question.

This is the department's response.

“We want Nova Scotians to understand what government is doing and why. That is why we work hard to answer media questions as clearly and quickly as possible. We hope that media include all relevant information so the public receives balanced information.”

I wonder how many hours of work went into that response.

Errington also advises that I should have taken the FOIPOP route.

“Regarding FOIPOP, it is standard practice that information requests that are very detailed, fall outside the way information is normally gathered, and require substantial staff time be referred to FOIPOP,” Errington writes.

FOIPOP, or the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, is the legislation that defines how to access government information.

FOIPOP legislation does not exist for any of the reasons Errington mentions. It regulates access to government records, things like reports, emails, memos, surveys, opinion polls, and so forth.

That's not what my questions are about. .

Anyways, although I did submit a FOIPOP request, it didn't make me any the wiser in terms of the actual answers to my questions.

Anything that hints at a concrete response to those questions is carefully censored from the information that the department released. That's because it is considered advice to the minister.

There's an awful lot of white in those emails.

Follow Robert Devet on Twitter @DevetRobert



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