Exclusive stories, for media types, are a wonderful thing. You get to put a note on your story saying that you were the first to find it, the first to do the legwork, the first to connect the dots. To the general public, it might mean far less — just members of the media blowing their own horn or trying to catch your attention and drag you in.
But exclusive stories also have their downsides. If a story is big and complex, your competition may just turn its back on the issue and leave you alone out there with your work, it may be the only apple tree of its kind ever grown, but the apples may end up getting precious little attention.
There’s been plenty of talk recently about a billion-dollar Canadian news story: the federal auditor general’s discovery that the Stephen Harper government is unable to account for $3 billion in anti-
terrorism spending. The money may have been spent fighting terrorism; it may have been spent on other government activities. But the auditor couldn’t find the money trail. There was $12.9 billion in spending at 35 government departments, but only $9.8 billion that was accounted for by spending records. It’s a juicy story when you’re dealing with a government that likes to cast itself as an economic anchor in globally stormy times.
But there’s another billion-dollar story that you might not have heard anything about. The Toronto Star launched an exclusive story on May 8 that’s in the same range. Looking back at a decade of federal government records, the Star has found that the federal government has spent $2.4 billion on “management consulting” contracts — but in 90 per cent of the contracts, is refusing to say what the money was actually spent on.
Government officials have said they can’t talk about the spending, because doing so would disclose “third-party proprietary information.”
Companies who received the contracts, when contacted by the Star, either said that they would not talk about what the contracts were for, or, even more disturbingly, were contractually bound not to talk about the services provided.
Most of the contracts — again, 90 per cent — don’t say whether the contracts were awarded as a result of a competitive bidding process. In the 10 per cent that did disclose how the contracts were awarded, more than 60 per cent of the contracts were handed out to a single company without a bidding process.
The federal government’s view? They’re saying little and what they are saying doesn’t answer many questions — especially because their own guidelines suggest that the contracts should be explained.
Treasury Board President Tony Clement issued a statement saying, “The government has a responsibility to use taxpayers’ dollars as efficiently as possible. Some government contracts are with private-sector companies to deliver or improve services without maintaining an expensive government bureaucracy.”
Years ago, when Peter Fenwick was the provincial leader of the NDP, he once famously described consulting services provided to the provincial government as “a festering pile of manure.”
The Star’s investigation may not show that federal contracts share the same distinction — but they sure do share the same smell.