Communication in waiting
Government slow to live up to vow of openness

Richard Gleeson
Northern News Services

NNSL (July 05/99) - For an organization that billed itself as open, accountable and accessible, the Nuanvut government is taking a long time get a handle on the tools it takes to communicate with the public in general and the media in particular.

Serious bottlenecks in the current communications system and a lack of communication policy make getting questions answered a hit-or-miss endeavour at best.

Premier Paul Okalik said opening government to the people is still a priority, but staffing shortages are making it a difficult goal to achieve.

"We're trying to deal with it and we're dealing with it now," said Okalik, adding that the government is reviewing its communications policy.

That review began last week, with a survey of how government departments respond to media enquiries, he said.

Minister of Community Government, Housing and Transportation Jack Anawak said doing the right thing is more important than talking about it.

"I would be more concerned if the government is serving the interests of the people," said Anawak. "The people have a right to be served, with or without the media."

The biggest bottleneck to the flow of information between government and the public is occurring at the government's central communications department.

"Right now we're seriously understaffed," said communications officer Judith Pereira. "There's supposed to be four people in the (communications) department and there's just me."

Okalik and Pereira said the government is trying to recruit a communications director before hiring two more communications officers, but so far no satisfactory candidates for the position have been found.

The staffing shortage is compounded by confusion among officials about what they can and cannot say to media and the public.

Part of the problem is that the government has no consistent communications policy. In some departments, officials have been instructed not to speak to media without approval from the minister of the department.

But that's not the way it's supposed to work, said Pereira, who said much of her time is spent trying to find answers to questions referred to her by the departments that have the answers.

Pereira said she has instructed officials, "If you know the answer and feel comfortable answering, answer the question."

Okalik said the government is trying to work out a consistent policy.

"We're trying to establish a process," said the premier. "Hopefully it will improve in the near future."

But Okalik said ultimate responsibility for accountability rests with MLAs, particularly those holding cabinet posts.

"We want the politicians to be the ones answering the questions," he said. "They were elected and they are responsible."