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Monday, 25 February 2013

Muzzling civil servants – Are Public Health professionals also subjected to censure?

The University of Victoria Environmental Law Clinic has received considerable attention for their paper on muzzling of civil servants, with particular emphasis on science based research.  The report is to be commended for identifying the concrete methods applied by bureaucracies of supporting consistent messaging and potentially controlling comments that may not be consistent with government direction.  In particular are the couched comments on differences between the Harper and Obama administrations, the expansion in openness from Bush to Obama, and the progressive containment of messaging since Harper administration came to the Prime Minister’s office.

The waxing and waning of communications within government sometimes follow political stripes, more often the leadership styles of individuals.  Bottom line none of this is new, but the current constraining crisis deserves the attention that report raises.

The criticism of the report is that it is superficial.  The report speaks to the obvious changes in communications policy that have clouded Ottawa in a veil of opacity, with particular focus on subjects that are not consistent with current government policy, such as the impacts of climate change.  

Often it is the subtler forms of muzzling that constrict the public service.   Retribution for actions or comments is rife and not necessarily within the concrete format of straight jacket policy.  Some other examples of how civil servants are kept in line.

·         Reorganizing or disbanding departments inconsistent with government policy
·         Internal review and editing of publications – “spin doctoring”
·         Removal of responsibilities, often those that are considered incentives for certain positions
·         Behaviour modification through the performance management systems – some of which can be linked to income incentives.
·         Having work subjected to formal review
·         Curtailing or constraining project funding to effectively castrate scientific freedom and transparency
·         Elimination or threat of elimination of positions and jobs
·      The current governments pervasive use of confidentiality contracts/agreements that preclude freedom of expression prior to becoming aware of results. The consequences of non-compliance can be significant.   

Professionals that are aggrieved and frustrated by the subtler approaches to restricting their professional freedom,  move to other positions within and without of government.   The system by its very nature promotes mediocrity and alignment with political direction.   Not that all governments are inherently bad, in fact they are representative of the majority vote of the populous – so if there is a grievance on policy direction, it will only be resolved at the polls.  

Those in public health may well recognize these subtler forms of censure.  Public health professionals are frequently engaged in social topics that are uncomfortable to political leaders, and while we would like to remain autonomous, the reality is that most of us have suffered some or all of the listed forms of censure.If you have other methods that you have been subjected to, please send your experience to drphealth@gmail.com  and lets lift the veil of silence.  One of the key reasons this site continues to protect anonymity, are the experiences in censure that have been far too commonplace. 

Kudos to the University of Victoria Environmental Law Clinic for holding government accountable.   The full report is appended to a letter to the Chief Information and Privacy Officer UVic Env Law Clinic letter

February 27th update:   Ric Mercer wandered into this discussion as only such a comedian could, Rick Mercer UTube.  


  1. Everyone is afraid to comment on this one!

    1. Silence can be our worst enemy. This site is committed to protecting individual anonymity to help express those views that can be shaded by fear - please speak out.

  2. I've been told by five various managers in the past 3 years that the innovative work I did over a decade ago (which definitely shook things up at the time but ended up winning me and my employers an award and national/provincial recognition), would not be allowed to even start now. We are required to toe the line, and not even test the waters of innovative ideas that aren't aligned with our pre-set projects.
    I could go on. But public health should not be about the status quo, it should always be about moving on to the next paradigm shift that needs to happen.

    1. Congratulations on your contributions and in making a difference. No doubt that innovation is being stifled by the system, and not just in public health. Perhaps youthful exuberance can continue to shine through, and those of us tainted by experience, can help by propping open doors to the new generation of innovators. We all need to be looking to the new paradigms.